Operation “Denver”: KGB and Stasi Disinformation regarding AIDS
As the United States has been grappling with the issue of Russian disinformation over the past few years, a number of journalists have looked back to the history of Soviet disinformation during the Cold War in an effort to understand its methods and goals. During the Cold War, the Soviet Committee for State Security (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, KGB) played a leading role in such disinformation campaigns; it was part of its covert psychological warfare activities or “active measures.”
One episode that has drawn particular attention, given its great success at the time, has been the KGB’s AIDS disinformation campaign, launched in the mid-1980’s. During the campaign, the KGB, assisted by the USSR’s Novosti Press Agency and the allied intelligence services of the Soviet bloc, sought to spread the thesis internationally that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was genetically engineered or otherwise concocted by the Pentagon as part of its alleged research in biological weapons at the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The reports in the mainstream U.S. media about the AIDS disinformation campaign have generally been accurate in terms of its workings, its impact and its potential lessons for today in terms of understanding and combatting disinformation.
Nevertheless, some important details have been missing or wrong. For example, it was a September 1985 cable from the KGB (not the East German Ministry of State Security, the Stasi) to Bulgarian State Security that has served as a “smoking gun” regarding the launch of the AIDS disinformation campaign see Document 1). The Stasi called the secret disinformation campaign Operation “Denver,” not “Infektion,” as practically all journalists and the entire internet now claim (see Document 2). And both the KGB and Stasi underlined the role of Soviet-East German biologist Jakob Segal in their disinformation campaign, but they both left open to what extent the Stasi influenced him and his research, if at all (see Document 3 and below).
With the goal of correcting these errors and oversights, providing a stronger empirical basis for future historical publications about the AIDS disinformation campaign, and to demonstrate the similarities – at least in content – between the Kremlin’s disinformation back then and now, we decided to publish this blogpost, along with translations into English of two key documents, along with excerpts from a third, for the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive. We have also included scans of two of the KGB documents so that Russian scholars, journalists and bloggers – and other scholars who read Russian – can make use of them in their publications.
Before we analyze some key points in the three documents, we would like to make one further correction. Christopher Nehring – not Douglas Selvage, as some journalists have reported – found all three documents in the files of the communist-era Bulgarian state security service in the archives of the Committee for Disclosing the Documents and Announcing the Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army (CDDAABCSSISBNA) in Sofia. We would like to thank the archivists there for their assistance during our research. Historian Jordan Baev cited Document 1 already in 2009 in his history „KGB v B‘lgariya“ (The KGB in Bulgaria), which also discussed the disinformation campaign
For more details, we would also like to recommend our larger study regarding the Stasi and the KGB’s AIDS disinformation campaign in German, published by the office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records and available online.
The findings in our study are summarized and updated by Douglas Selvage in English in two articles in the Journal of Cold War Studies, the first of which will appear in its Fall 2019 issue.
A “Smoking Gun”: The KGB and AIDS Disinformation
The earliest document that Christopher Nehring found regarding the KGB’s AIDS disinformation campaign in the Bulgarian archives – if one will, the “smoking gun,” the first archival evidence documenting the KGB’s launch of its disinformation campaign – was a telegram from the KGB in Moscow to its “comrades” in Bulgarian state security from September 7, 1985 [Document 1].
Telegram Nr. 2955 from the KGB to Bulgarian State Security, 7 September 1985. Obtained by Christopher Nehring. Source: CDDAABCSSISBNA-R, Fond (F.) 9, Opis (Op.) 4, A.E. 663, pp. 208-9.
The KGB wrote:
We are conducting a series of [active] measures in connection with the appearance in recent years in the USA of a new and dangerous disease, “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – AIDS”…, and its subsequent, large-scale spread to other countries, including those in Western Europe. The goal of these measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad that this disease is the result of secret experiments with a new type of biological weapon by the secret services of the USA and the Pentagon that spun out of control.
In the telegram, the KGB requested the assistance of Bulgarian foreign intelligence in spreading certain “theses” abroad, composed of a mixture of facts and lies. Likely, the KGB had fabricated some of the untruths itself; others, it had apparently drawn from (often sensationalist) accounts in the Western and international press. The KGB wrote, for example:
Facts have already been cited in the press of the developing countries, in particular India, that testify to the involvement of the special services of the United States and the Pentagon in the appearance and rapid spread of the AIDS disease in the United States, as well as other countries. Judging by these reports, along with the interest shown by the U.S. military in the symptoms of AIDS and the rate and geography of its spread, the most likely assumption is that this most dangerous disease is the result of yet another Pentagon experiment with a new type of biological weapon.
The “facts” in the Indian press to which the KGB referred was a letter to the editor published on the front page of the Indian newspaper Patriot, a known front for KGB disinformation, on July 17, 1983, under the title, “AIDS May Invade India: Mystery Disease Caused by U.S. Experiments.” The letter, written by an anonymous yet “well-known American scientist and anthropologist,” claimed that the germ causing AIDS had been developed through the Pentagon’s experimentation with potential bioweapons at Fort Detrick. Because the U.S. military was allegedly conducting similar experiments in neighboring Pakistan, the disease could soon spread to India – or at least that was the claim of the anonymous letter-writer and, one suspects, the KGB.
The Stasi and the AIDS Disinformation Campaign: Operation “Denver”
Almost a year later, at the beginning of September 1986, the East German Stasi sought to prompt Bulgarian State Security to cooperate with it – that is, not just the KGB – in the AIDS disinformation campaign [Document 2]. The division for active measures (Roman numeral “X”) of the Chief Directorate for Intelligence (Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung, HVA) of the Stasi wrote in a draft plan for cooperation on active measures the following:
With the goal of exposing the dangers to mankind arising from the research, production, and use of biological weapons, and also in order to strengthen anti-American sentiments in the world and to spark domestic political controversies in the USA, the GDR [German Democratic Republic] side will deliver a scientific study and other materials that prove that AIDS originated in the USA, not in Africa, and that AIDS is a product of the USA’s bioweapons research.
Document 2: Excerpt from HVA/X, Plan for common and coordinated active measures of the intelligence organs of the MOI [Ministry of Internal Affairs] of the PR [People’s Republic of] Bulgaria and the MfS [Ministry of State Security] of the GDR for 1987 and 1988, 3 September 1986. Obtained by Christopher Nehring. Source: CDDAABCSSISBNA-R, F. 9, Op. 4, A.E. 670, p. 112.
HVA/X also stated clearly the Stasi’s codename for the AIDS disinformation campaign: Operation [Aktion] “Denver,” which it had registered in the HVA’s central card file on July 17, 1986. This stands in contrast to the claims of former officer of HVA/X Günter Bohnsack, whose office was not directly involved in the AIDS disinformation campaign, that the operation was codenamed “Infektion” – a word that we found nowhere in the files of the Bulgarian or East German State Security with regard to AIDS. This is arguably important, given that the codename “Infektion” has become indelibly associated with the AIDS disinformation campaign, especially as an internet meme. A Google search on October 7, 2019 for “Infektion”, “AIDS” and “KGB” yielded 86,700 results. The name has also served as a title and extended metaphor – that is, disinformation spreads like a virus – for a recent, popular documentary film debunking Soviet and Russian disinformation. For those seeking to combat contemporary disinformation, an attention to facts, even such trivial ones, is arguably important. Moreover, one can use the virus metaphor without repeating the incorrect codename “Infektion.”
In a subsequent telegram to the Bulgarians in 1987 [Document 3], the KGB confirmed that the Stasi had been assisting in the disinformation campaign, which, in the Soviet view, was proceeding successfully:
The AIDS issue
A complex of [active] measures regarding this issue has been carried out since 1985 in cooperation with the [East] German and to some extent the Czech colleagues. In the initial stage, the task was resolved of spreading in the mass media the version regarding the artificial origin of the AIDS virus and the Pentagon’s involvement in by means of the military-biological laboratory at Fort Detrick.
As a result of our joint efforts, it was possible to widely disseminate this version.
Document 3: Telegram Nr. 2742 from the KGB to Bulgarian State Security, no date . Obtained by Christopher Nehring. Source: CDDAABCSSISBNA-R, F. 9, Op. 4, A.E. 675, pp. 156-9.
Jakob Segal, the Harare Brochure and the Stasi
As noted above, the HVA/X had written that it would send its Bulgarian “comrades” a “scientific study” allegedly “proving” that “AIDS is a product of the USA’s bioweapons research” [Document 2]. From the context of the discussions between officers of the HVA/X and their Bulgarian counterparts in mid-September 1986, it was clear which study was meant: “AIDS: Its Nature and Origin” by Soviet-East German biologist Jakob Segal and his wife, Lilli. The study had been distributed at the summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in August-September 1986 in a brochure entitled, “AIDS: USA home-made evil, NOT out of AFRICA.”
The Harare brochure. Photograph by Douglas Selvage. Although the brochure cites neither the year nor the place of publication, it provides the following information: “published on the occasion of the VIII Non-Aligned Summit in Harare (Zimbabwe) in 1986.” A copy of the brochure belonging to Douglas Selvage is on display at the German Spy Museum in Berlin.
The KGB, in its 1987 telegram to Bulgarian state security [Document 3], also wrote about Segal’s publications in the context of its “joint efforts” with the Stasi (and “to some extent” Czech State Security) in the AIDS disinformation campaign. The “articles and brochures of Jacob Segal,” the KGB wrote, had “attained great renown” and had “gained considerable resonance in African countries.” Although neither the KGB nor the Stasi claimed authorship of the Segals’ study, the Deputy Director of HVA/X, Wolfgang Mutz, hinted that the HVA had played a role in the publication – or actually, the photocopying – and distribution of the Harare brochure (see Chapter 4.3).
Mutz also spoke to his Bulgarian colleagues in September 1986 about HVA/X’s cooperation with the responsible “operational division” of the HVA in the AIDS disinformation campaign. In our study, we identify the office to which Mutz referred: Office (Referat) 5 of Division XIII in the Sector for Science and Technology (Sektor Wissenschaft und Technik, SWT) of the HVA, responsible for intelligence-gathering on AIDS and genetic engineering (see Chapter 4.4). One of its officers, Dieter van der Sand, registered a “security dossier” (Sicherungsvorgang, SVG) “Wind” on September 6, 1985, regarding the protection of East German scientists in the areas of AIDS research, genetic engineering and biotechnology from outside “attacks” in the form of espionage or manipulation by foreign agents. The Segals were apparently registered in this dossier, and whenever other divisions of the Stasi became interested in them, van der Sand was contacted. From other Stasi files, we know that HVA/SWT gave Segal at least one piece of advice regarding his study before its distribution in Harare (see Chapter 4.3). Whether he made use of it remains unclear.
By the summer of 1986, Jakob or Lilli Segal or both were registered as “contact persons” by van der Sand and given the codename “Diagnosis.” Given their designation as “contact persons,” they need not have known, at least officially, that they were dealing with the Stasi, although Jakob likely knew or could have guessed, given his past dealings with both the Stasi and the KGB. Information that the Segals prepared regarding AIDS matters or individuals that contacted them were entered into the HVA’s database under their codename (see Chapter 4.4). It is quite possible that HVA/SWT was already coordinating with the KGB regarding Segal’s research – even without his knowledge – in the second half of 1985, at the time that “Wind” was registered. Mutz claimed to the Bulgarians in 1986 that the HVA had somehow attracted Segal to his research on the alleged artificial origins of AIDS. However, Segal, for his part, always claimed publicly to have begun his research on his own initiative in the summer of 1985 without any prompting from the KGB or Stasi (see Chapter 4.1).
Unfortunately, 90 percent of the HVA’s files were destroyed or otherwise disappeared in the years 1989-90, including the dossier on Operation “Denver” and van der Sand’s files relating to the Segals and “Wind.” The extent and details of the HVA’s involvement with the Segals, especially in 1985-1986, remain unclear.
Life after Death: Soviet and Russian Disinformation regarding AIDS and Other Pathogens
Even after the collapse of communism and the Russian intelligence service’s revelation of the KGB’s role in the disinformation campaign in 1992, the KGB’s false theses regarding AIDS have continued to spread, especially on the internet. The term “Fort Detrick” can serve as a sort of “tracer” to detect the KGB’s influence on current AIDS conspiracy theories in the internet; its mention suggests at least an indirect KGB influence. Other conspiracy theories had already arisen in 1983 regarding a U.S. government role in creating and spreading AIDS, but it was the KGB’s disinformation that had popularized Fort Detrick as the location at which the alleged construction of the AIDS virus had taken place. Given the popularity of the Fort Detrick variant of the AIDS-as-U.S.-bioweapon thesis, both the KGB and the Stasi bear at least some responsibility for the ensuing public-health tragedy during the AIDS pandemic. Nicoli Nattrass, Fellow of the AIDS and Society Research Group at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, writes in her book AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back: “A growing body of research shows that AIDS conspiracy beliefs in the U.S. and South Africa are associated with risky sex, with not adhering to antiretroviral treatment, and with not testing for HIV” (p. 1) – all behaviors associated with higher HIV infection rates and thus a greater death toll.
Despite this knowledge of the dangers associated with AIDS disinformation, Russian propaganda outlets continue to spread it today, along with new disinformation theses building upon it. As late as February 2018, the French version of Sputnik news cited Jakob Segal’s thesis regarding Fort Detrick as part of a propaganda piece reporting on the secret dangers associated with U.S. military bases.
However, given the official disavowal of the AIDS disinformation thesis by the KGB’s successor agency in 1992, the Russian state has tended to “recycle” its former disinformation rather than simply repeat it. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, Russian propaganda outlets substituted the Ebola virus for HIV in a new conspiracy theory that they sought to promote: The U.S., Great Britain and the former apartheid regime in South Africa had engineered Ebola as a bioweapon to kill black Africans. After co-author Selvage noted the parallels with the earlier AIDS disinformation campaign in an interview at the Wilson Center with Voice of America (VOA) regarding our publication, Russia Today (RT) reposted VOA’s video on its website, along with a flood of commentaries from ordinary Russians – or perhaps also paid trolls (?). These commenters reiterated the Ebola-as-U.S.-bioweapon thesis and associated the disease’s spread with the location of U.S. military bases and economic interests in West Africa.
Even the Patriot article from 1983 has recently been recycled, if only for domestic propaganda. According to Giorgi Lomsadze in an article for Coda Story, various Kremlin-supported Russian media reported in 2018 that the U.S.-government financed Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in neighboring Georgia was carrying out bioweapon tests. In the process, numerous Georgians, they claimed, had been infected by various pathogens, and these pathogens were now threatening to spread to Russia. The center, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Threat Reduction Agency, had originally focused on securing viral and bacterial biological weapons left behind from Soviet biological warfare programs. The Center has focused more recently on educational initiatives with regard to various pathogens and their containment. It has also assisted in various public health measures, such as combatting the spread of Hepatitis C in Georgia. However, given the Kremlin’s track record on recycling disinformation, one would not be surprised to one day read the headline in Russia: “Ebola May Invade Russia: Mystery Disease Caused by U.S. Experiments in Georgia.”
KGB, Information Nr. 2955 [to Bulgarian State Security], 7 September 1985. Source: CDDAABCSSISBNA-R, Fond (F.) 9, Opis (Op.) 4, A.E. 663, pp. 208-9. Obtained by Christopher Nehring and translated by Douglas Selvage.
[Division X of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA/X) of the Ministry of State Security (MfS)], Plan for common and coordinated active measures of the intelligence organs of the MOI [Ministry of Internal Affairs] of the PR [People’s Republic of] Bulgaria and the MfS [Ministry of State Security] of the GDR for 1987 and 1988, 3 September 1986 (Excerpt). Source: CDDAABCSSISBNA-R, F. 9, Op. 4, A.E. 670, p. 112. Obtained by Christopher Nehring and translated by Douglas Selvage.
About the Authors
History and Public Policy Program
The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs. Read more
Cold War International History Project
The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more