The making of a Russian disinformation campaign: What it takes

In 1959, a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, was one of the places desecrated with Nazi imagery.

Story highlights

  • Michael Weiss argues that Putin's influence operation on the US electorate, modeled after Soviet false flag operations, required a willing audience in America
  • A secret campaign in 1959 offers an instructive example, he writes

Michael Weiss is a national security analyst for CNN and author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror."

(CNN)It started with a synagogue in Cologne.

On Christmas Eve 1959, two men drew swastikas on the wall of the house of worship, along with the phrase, "Germans Demand That Jews Get Out." Within days, Jews began receiving menacing anonymous phone calls, as Jewish grave sites and Jewish-owned shops were desecrated in over twenty towns and cities in West Germany.
    Michael Weiss
    From there, the desecrations went "viral," to use the sufficiently creepy contemporary term for an old-fashioned phenomenon. By New Year's, the fallen symbol of the Third Reich had sprung up in New York, London, Paris, Stockholm, Oslo, Milan, Copenhagen, Perth, Athens, Buenos Aires, and Bogota. The summer home of Denmark's king was graffitied. A Jewish MP in Britain was threatened with murder.
    Coming just fourteen years after the liberation of the camps, the reaction to such recrudescent race hatred was swift and furious. One British peer vowed to wage a personal investigation in West Germany to determine for himself the extent of the "rising tide of Nazism" in its former epicenter. Honorable West Germans were appalled and self-critical in a manner bordering on masochistic.
    The American press reopened wounds that were not quite healed yet, even with the balm of so much Marshall aid. "Bonn Unable to Eliminate Nazi Poison," ran one headline in the New York Herald Tribune, as the poet Carl Sandburg let his anti-fascist fervor get the better of his liberal judgment. Anyone caught daubing Hitler's symbol, he said, should be executed.
    The campaign of anti-Semitism even took an economic toll, as German employees were sacked from British-owned companies, some of which also canceled contracts with West German partners. A reconstructed postwar nation that had only just acceded to NATO four years earlier was thus faced with the humiliating question from the founding members of the alliance: Was German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's Federal Republic de-Nazified enough to be granted such a strategic privilege?
    "Between Christmas Eve 1959 and mid-February 1960," the American journalist John Barron later recounted, "West German authorities recorded 833 separate anti-Jewish acts. Then the epidemic ceased almost as suddenly as and mysteriously as it had begun. Police arrested and interrogated 234 people. Analyzing their motives, the government concluded that 24% acted out of 'subconscious Nazi motives;' 8% were inspired by extreme rightist or leftist beliefs; 48% were drunks or thugs; 15% were children; and 5% were mentally deranged."
    Case, then, seemingly closed -- but for a few oddities diagnosed in Patient Zero of this epidemic. The two men who had inaugurated the spree of defacements in Cologne had belonged to a minuscule West German neo-Nazi party but, as Barron noted, the authorities discovered "that they frequently made trips to East Germany and one had a Communist Party badge hidden behind his coat lapel."
    In a separate incident, the 22-year-old treasurer of a different fascist organization was arrested and admitted to the police that he was an East German agent whose mission was to infiltrate far-right groups in West Germany and whip up anti-Semitic sentiment. All of which fed the suspicion in Bonn that the simultaneity of these hate crimes hinted at something more than grim coincidence.
    It would take a few more years, when defectors from the GDR stole across the Berlin Wall, for the true provenance of the "swastika graffiti operation" to become known.
    An operation is exactly what it was, too, cooked up by General Ivan Ivanovich Agayants, who headed Department D of the First Chief Directorate of the Soviet KGB. The "D" stood for Dezinformatsiya, or disinformation, and Agayants, an austere ethnic Armenian, was very good at his job. During his tenure, he oversaw the forgery of documents alleging that the CIA planned to assassinate Indonesian President Sukarno and eliminate Turkish military officials and political actors in the interest of the then-ruling center-right Justice Party.
    The 58-year-old provocation may have been a tactical success, but it was a strategic failure: West Germany stayed in NATO and remained an intact liberal democracy immune from the restoration of Hitlerism well into reunification with its eastern neighbor. But the swastika graffiti campaign remains a vivid case study of a poisonous weapon used for decades, not only by the Soviets, but also by their heir, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, in trying to influence western nations, including the course of American democracy.
    To hear some pundits tell it, Donald Trump's election to the presidency was itself a triumph of Russian espionage based purely on the Moscow-linked proliferation of "fake news" and dubiously purchased advertise