``No more lies, no more disinformation,'' Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev promised Charles Wick, head of the United States Information Agency (USIA), last December. Nine months later, USIA officials are trying to quell the latest wave of unsubstantiated reports around the world that Americans are importing babies from Latin America, killing them, and selling their organs for transplants.
Medical professionals say such a practice is, for a variety of reasons, impossible.
There is no evidence that the Soviets started the rumor, which surfaced for the first time in Honduras early last year. But US officials believe the Soviets have worked to keep the story alive as part of an ongoing effort to discredit the United States in the eyes of the world.
When the Reuters and Agence France-Presse news agencies reported the story earlier this month - leading to coverage in mainstream news media in more than 50 countries - USIA decided it was time for damage control. It sponsored a press conference last week at which officials from the non-governmental United Network for Organ Sharing and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told foreign reporters here that there is no evidence of a black market in baby parts.
Organ procurement and transplantation are a complicated, time-sensitive process requiring numerous specialists, sophisticated equipment, and a sterile setting. So for such an activity to take place ``underground'' would be impractical and impossible, one HHS official explained.
In this era of warming US-Soviet relations, why would the Soviets apparently help disseminate such a gruesome story?
``It's a matter of cost-effectiveness,'' says Herbert Romerstein, head of the USIA's office to counter Soviet disinformation. In other words, if the Soviets can hurt the US image without too much negative publicity against the Soviet Union, it's worth it.
The story has hurt more than the US image - it has hurt Americans' ability to adopt foreign babies legitimately.
``Even though governments were aware the story was not accurate, some have believed the controversy itself was so potentially damaging that they've scaled back on adoption efforts,'' says Bill Pierce, president of the National Committee for Adoption.
The first known public allegation was made by a Honduran official in January 1987. He immediately repudiated the story, admitting he had repeated an unconfirmed rumor. But the damage was already done. The next month, the story resurfaced in Guatemala and then in other Latin American media.
In April 1987, the state-run Soviet media picked it up. First, the newspaper Pravda reported the Honduran official's original statement without mentioning the refutation. Then Tass, the official news agency, put it out over its wire service, again without the followup, and the story began appearing regularly in newspapers around the world, although rarely in mainstream publications. Throughout the summer, various Soviet publications followed up with lurid accounts, sometimes blending remarks about illegal child-selling, which is a proven practice, with statements about baby-organ trafficking.
``There is only one step from American arrogance, from racist contempt for the Latin American peoples, to cannibalistic total license,'' the newspaper Izvestia wrote on July 25, 1987.
Reports in the Soviet press invariably led to reports in other nations' media. And ``when you stop seeing it in the Soviet press, you stop seeing it around the world,'' Mr. Romerstein says. ``It's as if someone turned off the faucet.''
In April, the Brussels-based International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), which USIA and other disinformation specialists say is a Soviet front organization, got into the act. The IADL submitted a report on baby-parts trafficking to the UN Human Rights Committee suggesting it look into the matter.
In what USIA officials call a startling admission from a Soviet-controlled organization, the report even acknowledged that it had no solid evidence of such activity. The IADL followed up in June with another such ``report'' based on an inquiry it conducted in Haiti.
The latest and largest flare-up of the story came last month, when a judge in Paraguay claimed that babies were being sold to Americans for adoption and dismemberment. The judge later admitted he was repeating unconfirmed information, but not before Reuters picked up the story. The IADL then seized the opportunity to resubmit its reports to the UN and offered them to Agence France-Presse, which kept the story going.
Finally, on Aug. 18, the IADL official who signed the report wrote a letter to the Tribune de Gen`eve admitting that the IADL couldn't prove its charges. She then blamed the media for circulation of the stories, which were in fact based on the IADL's own reports.
But the story remains alive, nonetheless. The Communist Party newspaper in Uruguay Aug. 26 reprinted a baby-parts article from a Cuban newspaper.
Other alleged Soviet disinformation
Specialists on Soviet disinformation are tracking other alleged campaigns, among them:
AIDS. The story that AIDS was invented in a Pentagon lab first appeared in 1983 in a pro-Soviet newspaper in India, the Patriot. Since then, it has appeared repeatedly in the Soviet press and around the world. A year ago, US Surgeon General C.Everett Koop warned the Soviets that if the allegations didn't stop, the US would stop sharing information on AIDS research. The stories virtually vanished. But now they're back: In July, the Novosti press agency reported it, spawning a new wave of reports.
The ``ethnic weapon.'' Since at least 1980, allegations have appeared in the Soviet media that the US is producing a weapon - either an actual bomb or a virus - that kills only non-whites. This year reports have appeared in the USSR, Sweden, France, Bulgaria, Iran, Ghana, and most recently in Romania.
Jonestown. In January 1987, Izvestia published the first report charging the CIA was behind the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana by more than 900 followers of American cult leader Jim Jones. Since then, the Soviet-bloc media have repeatedly recycled the story.