The highest-ranking intelligence officer ever to defect from the Eastern Bloc says the Soviet Union orchestrated an anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda campaign in the Middle East four decades ago -- and the effects of the effort still reverberate.
Ion Mihai Pacepa led Romania's foreign intelligence service and was an aide to dictator Nicolae Ceausescu before defecting to the United States in 1978.
In his new book, "Disinformation," he and his co-author, U.S. scholar Ronald Rychlak, claim that under the leadership of Yury Andropov, the Soviet KGB helped sow the seeds of today's anti-American and anti-Israeli hatred in the Arab and Muslim world by initiating a sophisticated and covert propaganda campaign in the early 1970s.
Andropov, who led the Soviet spy agency from 1967 until he became Soviet leader in 1982, was "the father of a new disinformation era which revived anti-Semitism and generated international terrorism against the United States and Israel," Pacepa and Rychlak write.
Humiliated by the defeat of the Soviet-backed Arab states in their 1967 war against Israel, they write, Andropov devised the operation to discredit the Jewish state and present Zionism as "Nazi-style racism" while at the same time restoring Moscow's stature in the region.
The authors claim the operation, code-named SIG, was launched in 1972 and involved sending thousands of agents of influence into the Arab and Islamic world to foster anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment. Some of the agents were drawn from among the Muslim minorities of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries.
Pacepa -- whose 1987 book, "Red Horizons," sent shockwaves through the Soviet bloc with its revelations about the Ceausescu regime -- is still living under CIA protection some 35 years after his defection. He doesn't speak to the media directly but agreed to answer RFE/RL's questions in writing through an intermediary.
'Enemy Of Freedom'
"Before I left Romania for good in 1978, [Romania's foreign intelligence service] had sent around 500 such undercover agents to various Islamic countries. Most of them were religious servants, engineers, medical doctors, teachers, and art instructors," Pacepa told RFE/RL.
"According to a rough estimate received from Moscow, by 1978 the whole Soviet bloc intelligence community had sent around 4,000 such agents of influence to the Islamic world. The rule of thumb for that part of the globe was that only 70-75 percent of those assets would end up being really useful.... It is safe to presume that it must have had some effect."
He added that the book "spells out the process by which the United States, which had saved the world from Nazism, the Holocaust, and one of the most destructive dictatorships the world has ever known -- the Soviet empire -- has now become [seen as] an enemy of freedom for millions in the Arab world."
The Middle East was a key battlefield in the Cold War, and Moscow spent considerable resources courting Arab states in the region and vocally backing the Palestinian cause. But "Disinformation" adds some shocking details that don't appear to be corroborated elsewhere.
WATCH: A promotional trailer for "Disinformation"
For example, Pacepa and Rychlak write that the KGB facilitated the translation and distribution of thousands of copies of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a forged tsarist-era, anti-Semitic pamphlet that purported to describe plans for Jewish domination of Europe.
The book also alleges that the KGB assisted and trained groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in planning and executing terrorist attacks.
"The cumulative effect of the portrayal of the United States as a criminal Zionist surrogate should have made some dent over more than two decades. After September 11, 2001, thousands of Palestinians danced in the street for days in a row to celebrate the glorious victory over the American evil," Pacepa told RFE/RL.
"Tsarist anti-Semitism spawned the pogroms. Nazi anti-Semitism engendered the Holocaust. Soviet anti-Semitism generated today’s international terrorism."
According to Pacepa and Rychlak, Andropov saw the Islamic world as "a petri dish in which the KGB community could nurture a virulent strain of America-hatred, grown from the bacterium of Marxist-Leninist thought."
Holier Than Thou
They write that the SIG operation in the Muslim world grew out of an earlier KGB campaign to discredit the Vatican in the West and among Jews.
That operation, codenamed "Seat 12," sought to besmirch the record of Pope Pius XII for failing to do enough to save Jews from the Holocaust. It involved the aggressive promotion of the 1963 play "The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy" by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth. Pacepa and Rychlak allege this was aimed at posthumously destroying the wartime pontiff's image as someone who made successful efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Rychlak, a professor at the University of Mississippi and an authority on Pius XII, called the operation a great success for Moscow.
"After Pius XII has passed away, in the early 1960s, now you create a play, and not just a play -- you have books written about it, you have articles written about it, you make sure it gets translated and produced around the world," Rychlak says. "And what you do is, you don't just discredit a pope, you discredit the Catholic Church, Christianity itself, the idea of religion in some ways, and, ultimately, Western values. And it accomplished a great deal of what [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev and the Soviets wanted to accomplish."
Pius XII's actions during World War II have long been controversial among Western historians. He directed the church to discreetly aid Jews and reiterated the Vatican's teachings against racism. But he maintained the Vatican's neutrality in the war and has been criticized for not taking a more active role and for his public silence about the fate of the Jews.