One of the most important Czechoslovak Cold War defectors, Ladislav Bittman, died in his atelier in Rockport, Massachusetts, on Tuesday night. The foreign intelligence officer turned disinformation professor crippled Czechoslovak disinformation and even wider foreign intelligence operations for many years after his defection.
Disinformation during the communist era is not widely spoken about in the Czech Republic, but the death of Czechoslovak disinformation specialist, Ladislav Bittman, on Tuesday, swept through the country’s press, with even tabloids mentioning him as Czechoslovakia’s ‘most famous’ spy.
Born into a working class family and educated in International Relations, Bittman was a devout communist at first and, in 1954, joined the Czechoslovak State Security (StB) service going on to serve in its elite, foreign intelligence section.
Ten years later, in 1964, Bittman was transferred into the newly formed disinformation department, an umbrella section for operations ranging from political and economic to military disinformation.
Historian Petr Cajthaml has studied the disinformation department’s activities.
“During the 1960s it was the second most successful disinformation department in the eastern bloc after the USSR. It differed from other satellite states in its capability. While their disinformation was only directed at specified interest zones, the Czechoslovaks operated worldwide. Not just in Europe but in both Americas, in Africa and in Asia.”
Bittman took part in many operations, particularly focused against West Germany. He was one of the central figures in the famous operation NEPTUNE. Carried out in 1964, it involved placing chests containing forged documents under a lake to make them look as if they were buried by the retreating German forces in World War II. These were then ‘discovered’ by Bittman and his colleagues posing as divers working for Czech Television. The information within the chests received wide coverage abroad and was used to incriminate a number of West German officials.
Yet, the vassal status of Czechoslovakia in relation to Moscow and the disinformation tasks he had to carry out made Bittman increasingly disillusioned with the regime. The final straw came with the invasion of 1968. A couple of weeks after the August events, Bittman, who was now serving in Vienna, turned himself in to the CIA.
Mr Cajthaml says his defection hit the StB hard.
“Bittman’s defection stopped Czechoslovak foreign intelligence service’s operations for a time. First, because he knew the details of most of the disinformation operations and thus gave western agencies a chance to react to them. Second, because he knew the foreign intelligence service’s organisational structure and agents, compromising their cover and forcing them to leave their postings.”
Dedicating much of the rest of his life to exposing and analysing the lies of the system he had served, Bittman wrote many books on disinformation and even became a professor of the subject at Boston University as well as a passionate painter.
Unlike many other defectors, who sometimes abused their position to sell books based on made up claims, Bittman seems to have been truthful, with his statements continuing to be confirmed through materials discovered in the Czech Archive of the Security Services. In an interview for CBS Ex-CIA official, Mark Whyatt, went as far as to call him “one of the most noble men of the Cold War”.