Document Forgery

Document Forgery


The use of forgeries to deceive an enemy or affect public opinion has been a staple of disinformation throughout modern history. Forgeries can be more easily exposed than other types of active deception measures largely because careful analysis can often demonstrate convincingly that the documents are fraudulent. Still, forgery is effective in at least three ways. First, a forgery can cast aspirations on targeted governments and on individuals (silent forgery). This can be the most damaging forgery, as the victim does not know that the forgery is being circulated and may never get the opportunity to refute it. Second, forgeries, when publicized, force the target government to spend time, effort, and funds on refutation. Third, denial never entirely offsets the damage done as doubt can be cast by repeated reference to the forgery and to its contents.

Cadore letter. On August 5, 1810, Jean, Duc de Cadore, a French foreign minister, delivered a diplomatic note to the United States minister John Armstrong. In it, Napoleon I promised to revoke the Berlin and Milan Decrees in November, 1810, if the British Orders-in-Council were repealed, or if the United States reinstated sanctions against Great Britain. The latter happened and non-intercourse against the British resumed on February 28, 1811. The Cadore letter turned out to be a forgery. American ships continued to be sized and President James Madison refused to change his decision with regard to the British embargo.

De Lome letter. Written by the Spanish minister to the U.S., Enrique de Lome, to a friend in Havana, the letter was published in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal in February, 1898. It characterized President William McKinley as "weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd" and questioned McKinley's political integrity. This private letter was stolen by a Cuban rebel sympathizer from the Havana mail system and returned to New York. The publication of the letter uncovered the false promise of Spain's foreign policy towards the U.S. In its wake, De Lome immediately resigned, Spain sent an insincere apology, and McKinley let the incident pass, although it ignited American opinion toward future Cuban intervention.

"Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion." No country, however, has used forgeries as extensively as the Soviet Union, developing forgeries to a level unparalleled in previous times. For the Soviets, forgeries were a weapon of active measures (i.e., influence operations) that supported propaganda themes. The KGB had the responsibility for carrying out active measures and producing forgeries. Describing the role of the KGB in influencing attitudes in the West, Yuri Andropov, then head of KGB, said in 1967, "The state security bodies are also actively participating in the fulfillment of this task. The workers of these bodies are aware that peaceful coexistence is a form of class struggle; that it is a bitter and stubborn battle on all fronts, economic, political, and ideological. In this fight, the state security bodies are obliged to carry out their specific duties efficiently and faultlessly." These Soviet state security bodies built upon the activities of the czarist secret police (Okhrana,) who produced one of history's classic forgeries.

Among the most widely circulated propaganda tracts and the centerpiece of anti-Semitic literature, the infamous "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" appeared shortly before the 1905 uprising against the Czar Nicholas II of Russia. It was authorized by Pyotr Ivanovich Ratchkovski, the head of the Okhrana, who circulated it, although authorship is now given to Mathieu Golovinski. The forgery derived from a French political pamphlet,

This false passport and disguise enabled Lenin to escape into Finland after an order for his arrest was issued by the Russian Provisional Government in July 1917. ©HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS.
This false passport and disguise enabled Lenin to escape into Finland after an order for his arrest was issued by the Russian Provisional Government in July 1917. ©

"Dialoque aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavel," by Maurice Joly, which was first published in 1864 as an attack on Napoleon III's ambitions for world domination. In the "Protocols," "the Jewish," or "the Jews," were substituted where the French emperor was mentioned in the text.

The Okhrana, was responsible for the "Protocols," a forgery that cost untold number of lives since it was first introduced. The Nazis used this forgery as a justification for genocide against Jewish persons, and even today anti-Semitic groups continue to reprint it.

German-Bolshevik conspiracy. Drawing on the experience of their Czarist predecessors, the Soviet KGB (known earlier as the Cheka, OGPU and GPU) continued to use forgeries. Six months after seizing power, the Bolsheviks were concerned about continuing accusations labeling Lenin and his comrades as German agents. There was some logic to this accusation, as the Germans had helped send Lenin back into Russia to undermine their wartime enemy. The Bolsheviks denied that they were in the pay of the Germans. On September 15, 1918, the United States government released to the press a collection of documents that purported to show that the Bolsheviks had received money both before and after the Russian Revolution. In October, 1918, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the World War I predecessor of USIA, released a pamphlet to the press entitled "The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy" which contained translations of 68 documents and reproductions of many of them. In addition, the pamphlet contained an analysis of the documents prepared for the National Board for Historical Service by two distinguished scholars. The report concluded that most of the documents were genuine, although some were questioned. The documents had been obtained in Russia by Edgar Sisson, the CPI representative, and came to be known as the "Sisson documents."

The release of the Sisson documents was reported in the American press on September 16, 1918, but, on September 21, the New York Evening Post challenged their authenticity, citing as their source Santeri Nuorteva, who was described by them as "head of the Finnish Information Bureau in New York," a notorious Soviet propapagandist who had been a representative of the short-lived Communist government established in Finland by the Red Army. Nuorteva revealed that the first American to see the documents was Col. Raymond Robins, the Red Cross administrator in Russia who was later identified as a Bolshevik sympathizer.

The controversial Sisson documents are consistent with documents proving German financing of the Bolsheviks that were found in the German Foreign Office after World War II. The possibility exists that the Bolsheviks created a set of forgeries which were then mixed with authentic documents, and passed to the American government by Robins for the purpose of discrediting the thesis that Lenin and company were on the German payroll. In fact, the exposure of the Sisson documents created an atmosphere in which any allegation of German financial support to the Bolshevik was treated with distrust. It was only decades later that the German Foreign Office documents became available and proved the point.

Zinoviev letter. On October 25, 1924, the British Foreign Office released to the press the text of an alleged document of the Communist International ordering the British Communist Party to carry out activities against the Labour government and to organize cells in the army. The document signed with the name of the head of the Communist International, Grigory Zinoviev, is credited with bringing down the British Labour government, which was perceived as being too soft on the Soviet Union.

The Soviet government and Zinoviev denied the authenticity of the letter. However, it was quite consistent with instructions given to the British and other Communist parties by the Fifth World Congress of the Communist International held in Moscow in the summer of 1924. The instructions had been printed in the September 5, 1924 issue of the official Comintern publication, International Press Correspondence, published in German and English in Vienna.

Tanaka memorandum. In 1929, a different form of Soviet forgery appeared when a document, purporting to be a memorandum from the Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka to the Emperor Hirohito, found its way into the Western press. This document laid out a Japanese plan for world conquest. According to the introduction to a 1941 publication of the document by the American Communist Party, "The Tanaka Memorial…was written in 1927 as a confidential document. It first came to light in 1929 after it had been purchased from a Japanese by Chang Hsuehliang, then the Young Marshal of Manchuria," a warlord who frequently collaborated with the Chinese Communists. In late 1936, he kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek and demanded that he cooperate with the Communists in the war against Japan.

The Tanaka document was clearly a forgery. It contained errors of fact about Japan and even about Baron Tanaka, but it was widely circulated until the end of World War II. An insight into its Soviet origin was provided in 1941 by Leon Trotsky, who argued that it was authentic. According to an article by Trotsky, written shortly before his death, Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of Cheka, secured the document in 1925 through a spy in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The document was photographed and then translated for Trotsky. Trotsky did not explain how the Soviets came into possession in 1925 of a document not written until 1927, the year Tanaka became prime minister. It is possible that the Soviets created the forgery based on an authentic document stolen in 1925.

Trotsky revealed that the document was put into circulation in the United States through Amtorg, the Soviet trading corporation, headed by man named Bogdanov. Since Bogdanov did not arrive in the United States until 1930, Trotsky's knowledge of the method of surfacing could only have come through his contacts in the GPU, which he maintained after being ousted from the Soviet leadership. This date would be consistent with the forgery's original surfacing in China in 1929 and its replay in the United States in 1930.

The most recent replay of the Tanaka forgery was a reference to it in a Kuwaiti newspaper in January, 1987. The unsigned article, in Arabic, which showed substantial evidence of Soviet authorship, accused the United States of developing an "ethnic weapon," a biological weapon that would supposedly affect only black or brown skinned people. This bizarre allegation has been repeated in both official Soviet media and in publications influenced by the Soviets for years. The article was also accompanied by a purported picture of the "ethnic weapon" being fired and carried the caption, "The germ bomb is fired from regular tanks looking like regular bombs and spreading the germs." The opening paragraphs of the article accused the United States of taking over biological weapons research from the Japanese, who were supposedly carrying out the plans revealed by Tanaka in his letter to the Emperor.

Whalen documents. In 1930, the U.S. Congress was planning to establish a committee to investigate Communist propaganda. Shortly before it was formed, the New York City police department received copies of a set of documents purporting to be letters from the Communist International instructing Amtorg to carry out Communist propaganda in the United States. Amtorg actually was deeply involved in Soviet espionage in the United States. The documents were released to the press on May 2, 1930, and appeared in print the next day. They were released by police Commissioner Grover Whalen and came to be known as the "Whalen documents."

An examination of the documents revealed that they were forgeries. For example, the letterhead read "Ispolkom Kominterna" (Excom Comintern). An authentic document would have spelled out "Communist International," rather than using the nickname Comintern. The forgeries were exposed by journalist John L. Spivak, who provided the evidence to Congressman LaGuardia and wrote about the case in the New York Evening Graphic.

Spivak claimed that his editor gave him the assignment to trace the documents on May 3. After investigating type foundries and print shops, he said he discovered the identity of the printer of the letterheads on May 8. It took him four days to trace the printing. Spivak's story does not stand up to investigation. When the printer testified before a congressional committee, he revealed that he recognized the letterhead when he saw it reprinted on the front page of the Yiddish language daily newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward. The same day, Spivak came into his store and accused him of being the printer of the letterheads. The printer Max Wagner, signed an affidavit for Spivak acknowledging that he had the printed the letterheads. The statement, read into the Congressional Record by Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, states, "I printed this about four months ago and submitted two copies as a proof, but the man did not come back for the order, Signed, M. Wagner, printer."

The photostat of the letterheads appeared on the front page of The Jewish Daily Forward (May 3, 1930), the date that Spivak began his investigation, not four days later. It is clear that Spivak knew the printer's identity as soon as he began his investigation.

The Communist Party newspaper, Daily Worker (May 13, 1930) reproduced a photostat of the Wagner affidavit with a slightly different text leaving out the word "printer" and inserting the words "May 8, 1930." This appears to have been concocted to authenticate Spivak's claim that he confronted Wagner on May 8th rather than on May 3, when the incident actually took place.

In 1945, Elizabeth Bentley revealed to the FBI that she had worked as courier for a Soviet spy ring and she identified Spivak as a member of the ring. The Communists used the forgeries to discredit the congressional committee established to investigate Communist propaganda. The committee, headed by Congressman Hamilton Fish of New York, never authenticated the Whalen documents. However, Earl Browder, then head of the Communist Party U.S.A., reported to a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International held in Moscow in April, 1931, that, "the notorious forged 'Whalen Documents,' produced by the Czarist 'General' Djamgaroff, became the occasion for the U.S. Congress to set up the Fish Committee to investigate Communist activities in the U.S. Behind the actions of this committee, which were the most vulgar farce considered in themselves, was the sinister and serious purpose of preparing 'public opinion' for the war of intervention against the U.S.S.R." Badacht was later revealed, by Whittaker Chambers, as the man who recruited him as a Soviet spy. Bedacht was the contact between the leadership of the American Communist Party and the Soviet intelligence service.

Other events. Since World War II, the Soviet Union continued to release forgeries that it expected would damage U.S. relations with its allies. Several were important campaigns. One was designated the Eisenhower-Rockefeller Letter, an extensive forgery presented as a private "letter" from Nelson A. Rockefeller to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in which Rockefeller was portrayed as the advocate of a "bolder program of aid to under-developed countries," as a cover for what the East Germany press called "supercolonialism" ("superkolonialismus"). Its aim was to discredit the U.S. commitment to the removal of the old colonial powers from their involvements in Africa and in Asia.

The document first appeared on February 15, 1957, in the East German daily, Neues Deutschland, and circulated throughout the world during what was termed the "Camp David" period of East-West cordiality (1959–1960); it later appeared on Radio Moscow, in Pravda (Soviet party newspaper), on Radio Hanoi, on Radio Beijing, in the Czechoslovak domestic press, and in the official news agency of the People's Republic of China.

In 1961, Richard Helms, assistant director of the Central Intelligence Agency, testified before the U.S. Senate. He said, "Long before 1957, the Communists were as skillful as the Nazis in the production and exploitation of forgeries. But in that year, they first began to aim them frequently against American targets, to turn them out in volume, and to exploit them through a wide-flung international network. Then CIA put these fakes under the microscope. We found that each Soviet forgery is manufactured and spread according to a plan. Each is devised and timed to mesh with other techniques of psychological warfare in support of Soviet strategy." During this period, more than 32 forged documents were found.

In a 1980 report to the U.S. Congress, the CIA revealed that "the KGB provides a non-attributable adjunct to the overt Soviet propaganda network. Service A of the KGB's Foreign Intelligence Directorate plans, coordinates and supports operations which are designed to backstop overt Soviet propaganda using such devices of covert actions as forgeries, planted press articles, planted rumors, and controlled information media. In particular, the number of Soviet forgeries has increased dramatically in recent years. In the early 1970s, this section of the KGB was upgraded from "department" to "service" status—an indication of its increased importance. Service A maintains liaison with its counterparts in the Cuban and the East European services and coordinates its overall program with theirs."

The "U.S. Army Field Manual, FM 30–31B," also known as "Stability Operations-Intelligence," was the most ubiquitous forgery of recent years. In September, 1976, a photocopy of this forgery appeared on the bulletin board of the Philippine Embassy in Thailand, together with a letter addressed to Philippine President Marcos. The forgery said that the United States planned to use leftist terrorist groups in Western countries to promote U.S. objectives. It reappeared in 1978 in two Spanish publications where it had been planted by a Spanish Communist and a Cuban intelligence officer. The next year, copies of a Portuguese language translation were circulated by the Soviets among military officers in Lisbon.

The forged field manual had worldwide distribution in the late 1970s. In January, 1979, Covert Action Information Bulletin, published in the United States by CIA defector Philip Agee, reproduced the forgery as if it were an authentic document. While the original forgery was a typescript, the magazine reset it in font that gave the impression that it was a printed document.

In 1983, the Soviets began to replay the story. In the new version, the manual had been discovered in the possession of the Italian Masonic organization P2, which was involved in an important scandal at the time. This was an attempt both to link the United States government to the scandal and to authenticate the forgery.

Presidential review memorandum on Africa. On September 17, 1980, White House press spokesman Jody Powell announced that an unidentified group had sought to sow racial discord by circulating a forged presidential review memorandum on Africa that suggested a racist policy on the part of the United States. The first surfacing on the forgery appears to have been in the San Francisco newspaper, Sun Reporter (September 18, 1980). The Sun Reporter 's political editor, Edith Austin, claims in that issue of the paper to have received the document from an "African official on her recent visit on the continent." The forgery was replayed by the Soviet news agency TASS on September 18, 1980, and distributed worldwide.

Kirkpatrick speech. Former United States ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick has been the target of more than one Soviet forgery. On February 6, 1983, the pro-Soviet Indian weekly, Link published the text of a supposed speech by U.N. Ambassador Kirkpatrick outlining a plan for the Balkanization of India. The speech was never given, but this forgery has been replayed many times by Soviet-controlled propaganda outlets. Its most recent appearance was in the book, Devil and His Dart, published in 1986. The author, Kunhanandan Nair, was the European correspondent of Blitz, another pro-Soviet publication.

On November 5, 1982, the British magazine, New Statesman published a photostat of a letter supposedly from a South African official to Kirkpatrick. He was allegedly sending her a birthday gift. The U.S. Mission to the U.N. wrote the magazine on November 19, branding the letter a forgery. New Statesman countered this by printing another photostat of the forgery with entirely different spacing between the lines. The magazine claimed that the letter was authentic and that they had received it from a source in the U.S. Department of State. A comparison of this forgery with a letter sent by the South Africa official to a number of U.S. journalists announcing his appointment as information counselor at the embassy revealed that this letter was the exemplar. The real letter had been typed on a computer. The forgery based on it was typed on a typewriter and contained a number of misspellings.

Los Angeles Olympics forgery. In the summer of 1984, two bizarre leaflets were mailed to African and Asian participants in the Los Angeles Olympics, which were boycotted by the Soviets. Signed by the Klu Klux Klan, they threatened the lives of these athletes. These leaflets later proved to be Soviet forgeries, written in poor English. When the U.S. government exposed them and pointed out that there is no organization in the United States called simply the Klu Klux Klan (the organizations bear individual names like White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan or Invisible Empire of the Klu Klux Klan), TASS, the Soviet official news agency, responded on July 12, 1984, by claiming that the leaflets were signed "the Invisible Empire, The Knights of the Klu Klux Klan." TASS attempted unsuccessfully to correct the error on the leaflets made by the KGB. The forgeries were intended to preoccupy African-American and Asian-American athletes with intimidation, and negatively affect their performance. Despite the lack of Soviet competition, Americans won a record 83 gold medals at the 1894 Olympics, led by the 23-year-old African-American Carl Lewis.

Weinberger speech and the Strategic Defense Initiative. During the summer of 1986, West European journalists received a copy of the text of a supposed speech by U.S, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). No such speech was ever made. The forgery contained five falsehoods: first, that the U.S. had a desire for military "prevalence" (superiority) over the Soviet Union in order to be able to achieve victory in a "controlled nuclear exchange" (limited nuclear war) or a protracted war; second, that the United States would use SDI to "prevent the development of unfavorable tendencies" in NATO and to control its allies was false; third, that SDI would enable the U.S "to threaten the Soviet Union with a knock-out blow"; fourth, that SDI would "coerce the Soviet Union and make a practical contribution to the liberation of all nations enslaved by Communist totalitarianism, including, possibly, even the Russians themselves" were false; fifth, that SDI would enable the U.S. to maintain a technological lead over its "rivals" in the free world; and sixth, that the Soviets do not have their own form of SDI were additional false statements. The Weinberger forgery was intended to assist the Soviet active measures campaign. However, it was exposed by the U.S. government and did not serve Soviet purposes.

The Schweitzer-Pinochet letter. In July 1985, an Italian journalist found a copy of a letter signed with the name of General Robert Schweitzer, the head of the Inter-American Defense Board. The letter was a forgery addressed to President Pinochet of Chile asking him to provide troops to fight on behalf of the United States in Central America. The journalist contacted the U.S. Embassy and within the day received evidence that the letter was a forgery. He did not write a story based on the letter. A few days later, however, another Italian press service ran a story datelined Mexico City based on the letter. When they were advised it was a forgery, they investigated and discovered that the letter had been provided to one of their writers by the public relations man for the Guatemalan insurgency, which was supported by Cuba and Nicaragua. The news service ran an expose of the forgery, attributing it to the Cubans and Nicaraguans. This incident points to a problem the Soviets had in surfacing forgeries. On the one hand, the common technique of using a plain, unmarked envelope to surface the forgery creates suspicion in the mind of the recipient. On the other hand, the use of a human being to pass on the forgery provided a trail leading back to the forger.

Former United States Information Agency (USIA) specialist in Soviet disinformation Herbert Romerstein wrote a letter to General Schweitzer on August 16, 1985, providing background on the forgery, then sent a copy of this letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he testified, for printing in a Congressional report on Soviet active measures. Romerstein wrote the word "copy" on the top of the letter then, at the request of a Czech diplomat, Vaclav Zluva, provided him with a copy of this letter. As a precaution, Romerstein drew a line under the word "copy" on the original from which all subsequent copies were made, which made Zluva's letter unique and identifiable.

In August 1986, the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report received a forgery in a plain white envelope signed with Romerstein's name. The Washington Post called him in; he looked at it, explained the forgery, and the newspaper carried a story on it (August 19, 1986). The forgery was on the letterhead of the United States Information Agency and was signed with Romerstein's name. At the top of the forgery was the word "copy" with no line under it. This made it clear that the exemplar for the forgery was the letter Romerstein had given to the Czech. When Romerstein confronted Zluva about this, he admitted sending the exemplar to Prague.

In the forgery, Romerstein made it appear as if he had organized a USIA effort to spread all of the false stories that had appeared around the world after the Chernobyl disaster. In fact, the false stories were generated by Soviet reluctance to reveal information about the accident. On April 26, 1987, the Soviet publication Moscow News admitted, "The formulation, not for the press, is being used more and more often. Why cannot our press use what is being regularly reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency? There are some who do not understand that rumours and hearsay are generated not by summaries and figures, but by their absence."

Reagan signature. In the 1980s, before the downfall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991, President Ronald Reagan's signature appeared on a number of forgeries. The last to appear was in May 1987. It was a supposed memorandum to the secretaries of state and defense, and the director of the CIA. In this forgery, which bore the date March 10, 1983, the president was supposedly ordering the establishment of a U.S. military force called the "Permanent Peace Forces" to intervene in Latin America. This forgery received wide circulation in Latin America and was designed to inflame nationalist and anti-American feelings.

The usual path of a Soviet forgery was from the KGB to a target newspaper. When the target was a legitimate publication it became difficult for the Soviets to succeed in planting the forgery. They often used publications which they could control or influence for the initial surfacing. One publication frequently used this way was the Indian newspaper, Patriot. In testimony before a British court on March 24, 1987, Ilya Dzhirkvelov, a former officer of the KGB, revealed that in 1962, on KGB orders, he participated in setting up this newspaper.

After a forgery appeared in a publication such as the Patriot, it was replayed by the Soviet press agencies TASS or Novosti. This provided copies in every language for KGB officers to plant in the world press through their agents but not all forgeries were meant for publication. They were passed by KGB agents of influence to officials of a target government in the hope that they would believe forgeries designed to increase anti-American feeling. Such forgeries were often unknown to American officials, who had no opportunity to refute many of them. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the relaxation of the American-Soviet rivalry, KGB forgeries lessened, but forgeries continue to remain a significant weapon of disinformation stories worldwide.

Acknowledgement. The author wishes to thank Herbert Romerstein, former coordinator of Programs to Counter Soviet Active Measures, United States Information Agency, for his assistance in compiling this essay, especially in clarifying the different Soviet forgeries. Mr. Romerstein's paper, "Forgeries: A Weapon of Soviet Active Measures," prepared for the 1987 Conference on Soviet Active Measures and Propaganda in the Gorbachev Era: Analysis and Response" should be considered a primary source on the subject. I am grateful to Mr. Romerstein for permission to use this paper and for his helpful comments.



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Segal, Binjamin W. A Lie and a Libel: A History of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. [Translation by Richard S. Levy of 1926 edition] Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 1995.

U.S. Department of State. Active Measures: A Report on the Substance and Process of Anti-U.S. Disinformation and Propaganda Campaigns. Washington: The Department, 1896.

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U.S. International Communication Agency. Forgeries of U.S. Documents. Prepared by the European Branch, Office of Research. Washington: The Agency, 1982.


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