When the Soviet Union covertly continued its massive biological weapons program after signing the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, it disguised programs aimed at the weaponization of smallpox, bubonic plague, anthrax, and other pathogens as civilian medical research. It fabricated alternative explanations for deadly outbreaks caused by facility accidents and arranged elaborate “Potemkin tours” for international inspectors. When the United States seemed close to fielding their new enhanced radiation weapon under the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the Soviets launched a massive covert propaganda campaign through media outlets and front organizations to shift public opinion about the new weapon in Europe and the United States, mobilize protests that threatened NATO coherence, and ultimately alter US strategic decisions around the “neutron bomb.”
Information manipulation and covert influence campaigns have long been tools of sub-threshold strategic competition used to try to influence arms race dynamics, arms control decisions, and the enforceability of compliance and verification regimes. During the Cold War, such massive covert operations were only feasible by great powers. Today, not only are there more actors with potential stakes in arms control decisions, but global connectivity and digitization combined with a panoply of new Digital Age tools make it easier to obfuscate, deny, and manipulate the information environment around arms control.
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