Inside NEPTUN, a bold Cold War Information Campaign

Just over three Years ago, on a chilly spring day, I drove to Rockport, Massachusetts, a small town on Cape Ann cape, to meet a fugitive from the former Soviet bloc. I was on my way to Washington, DC, to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, but this detour seems too good to ignore: The fugitive, Ladislav Bittman, knows more about the dark art of Cold War Misinformation than anyone else alive. In fact, a former head of the KGB’s mighty misinformation unit once hailed Bittman’s memoir as one of the two best on the subject. Bittman greeted me at his front door, a bald man with a grimace and youthful eyes, and led me into a peaceful wood-paneled room. It is adjacent to his studio, where he makes modernist paintings.

Before his defection in 1968, Bittman was a major in the notorious fierce state security agency of the StB, Czechoslovakia. He served at a time when the Soviet Union and its satellite republics were entering what he called the “new era of secret games and conspiracies against the non-Communist world.” Eastern intelligence agencies, as well as Western intelligence agencies, have long believed their primary role was to gather information; now, in their endless ideological struggle with liberal democracy, they begin to see real value in spreading false information, in undermining Western societies with what they call are “positive measures”. Bittman is the deputy director of Department 8, specializing in these “dirty tricks”, as he once described them to a congressional committee.

It takes some sort of person to work in false information, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Discover weaknesses in rival societies, see cracks and rifts and political tensions, recognize exploitable historical trauma, and then write a pamphlet or a picture letter or a forged book – all of this requires extraordinary-minded officers. Bittman is one of them; he is responsive, methodical and very adventurous. The trick, he says, is to mix accurate details with forged details, because for misinformation to be successful it must “at least partially correspond to reality, or generally accepted views”. .

Sitting with him at Rockport, I can tell he’s a perfect fit for the job: He listens carefully, pauses frequently to think and talks with consideration. His memory and attention to detail are astounding – especially in relation to one of his proudest achievements, a positive measure known as Operation NEPTUN.

In the following years With the end of World War II, the public was fascinated by rumors that the Nazis had hidden some of their stolen treasures, including bullion, at the bottom of Lake Toplitz in the Austrian Alps. A six-week government-sponsored expedition in 1963 found no gold, but another kind of treasure emerged – 12 Nazi-forged British currency chests, two chests with counterfeit prints and many types of fake stamps. The myth is just right enough to make people wonder: Where else could Hitler hide his spoils?

In April 1964, a few months after Austria stopped searching, the producers of the Czechoslovak TV show Curious camera decided to organize a similar expedition in their own country. They sent a team of divers and a documentary crew deep into the Bohemian Forest – located between Munich and Prague and almost directly on the border between East and West – to a pair of adjacent lakes, Devil’s Lake and Black Lake. During the war, Wehrmacht and SS units seized a burned small house overlooking the Black Lake, and local legend holds that the waters are hiding a dark secret.

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