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The West wakes up to the dangers of disinformation

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FIVE years ago the best seller ``The Spike'' created a sensation. Its thesis -- ``so explosive it can only be told as fiction,'' as the blurb had it -- was that major American news media were manipulated by Moscow. ``Disinformation'' was not yet a buzzword. The authors of ``The Spike,'' Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss, along with a few other crusaders, were out to make it one.

They succeeded.

Congress opened hearings on disinfor-mation. The State Department set up a section to deal with Soviet disinformation abroad.

Publicity and the State Department's meticulous documentation of forgeries even steeled the Netherlands, Portugal, and Denmark to expel some of the most blatant Soviet operatives. A storybook example of the phenomenon is on stage now in a Norwegian court as Arne Treholt -- ex-Foreign Ministry spokesman, left-wing Social Democrat, and onetime political star -- is being tried as a Soviet spy.

All this fact and fiction about Soviet disinformation in the West has been much more alarming to Westerners than shadowy intrigue in volatile third-world politics.

In the 1980s, then, disinfor-mation in the politically stable industrialized world has become an issue in its own right -- but one hard to pin down.

``I'm afraid you won't have much to write about,'' sympathized a Western intelligence official when asked about it.

He noted there have been only two ranking Soviet-bloc defectors who dealt directly with disinformation in their former secret-service jobs: Stanislav Levchenko of the KGB's Tokyo ``residency'' before he fled to the United States in 1979, and Ladislav Bittman, deputy chief of the Czechoslovak Disinformation Department before his defection in the fall of 1968. Bittman's information is old; Levchenko was involved in disinformation only ``on the periphery,'' the official observed.

Nonetheless, enough is known by now to venture at least an initial assessment of disinformation in the industrialized world.

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