Lessons From Operation 'Denver,' the KGB’s Massive AIDS Disinformation CampaignHistorians in the News
tags: Foreign Affairs, AIDS, interview, Disinformation, COVID-19
In September 1985, the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) informed other Warsaw Pact foreign intelligence agencies that it had launched a new, major disinformation campaign. “We are carrying out a complex of [active] measures in connection with the appearance in recent years of a new dangerous disease in the USA known as AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).” The KGB explained that “the goal of the measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad — namely, that this disease is the result of secret experiments by the USA’s secret services and the Pentagon with new types of biological weapons that have spun out of control.” Most likely, the KGB had initiated the disinformation campaign as early as 1983, but the September 1985 document — obtained by Christopher Nehring from the former Bulgarian State Security archive — is the earliest conclusive evidence that has turned up so far. (The former KGB foreign intelligence archive has never been accessible to researchers.)
Among the East European intelligence services that assisted the KGB in this effort was the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi), which used the codename “Denver” when referring to the campaign. The KGB and Stasi relied on forged documents and inaccurate testimony from purported experts to suggest that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, had originated not from infected animals in Africa but from biological warfare research carried out by U.S. military scientists at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Operation Denver proved remarkably effective, writes historian Douglas Selvage in an article featured in a recent issue of the Journal of Cold War Studies; indeed, even more effective than the KGB and Stasi had originally expected. Before long, immense numbers of people around the world (including in the United States) came to believe, falsely, that the U.S. government was responsible for AIDS.
Selvage’s article appeared a few months before Covid-19 burst into public consciousness. The Covid-19 pandemic has provoked a wide range of lurid conspiracy theories in countries whose governments are hostile to the United States, notably Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela. The conspiracy theories circulating in 2020 are more diffuse and less coherent than the disinformation propagated by the KGB and the Stasi in the 1980s, but the two periods bear distinct similarities. In both cases, authoritarian regimes have exploited widespread public fear and confusion to generate suspicions about U.S. motives, to stoke hostility toward the United States, and to discredit the U.S. government’s sincerity in combatting the global pandemic.
In our exchange featured below, Selvage sheds light on the origins and main purpose of operation “Denver” and considers the lessons we may learn in responding to Russian and Chinese disinformation in 2020.