Circling the Lion's Den

Confessions of a Disinformer from Lubyanka


Alexander Mikhailov

A former FSB general decides to tell his Chechnya story

Andrei Soldatov / Versiya, March 19, 2002 /


General Alexander Mikhailov is a controversial figure. In Soviet times he worked at the infamous Fifth Directorate (the ideological arm of the KGB). In the 1990s he headed the press centers of the FSB, the Interior Ministry, and the Cabinet, in turn. Essentially, Mikhailov was responsible for information warfare in Chechnya. It was no coincidence that his last position was as head of Rosinformcenter at the start of the second campaign in Chechnya. He was known as the "chief disinformer" of the FSB.

Although he retired in 1999, it's only now that Mikhailov has finally decided to write about the events in which he took part. His book, "The Wheel of Chechnya", has just been published by Sovershenno Sekretno.

Question: You must have been the first person in the Russian secret services to work with the media. It is said that you spied on the "Moskovsky Komsomolets" newspaper back in the 1980s...

Alexander Mikhailov: I'd like to deny that immediately: we could not spy on "Moskovsky Komsomolets", since it was a publication of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Youth League, and under KGB regulations at the time, no subdivision of the Central Committee, the Moscow City Committee, and so on could become a target of KGB surveillance. But it's true that I had contacts with journalists from 1976 onwards.

Question: During the events at Pervomaiskoye, which you have written about, your role was quite significant...

Mikhailov: By the way, that diary of Pervomaiskoye, which was included in the book, was completed by January 24, 1996; the operation ended on January 19. 

Question: Judging by Pervomaiskoye, my colleagues describe you as a rather ruthless player on the information field. In fact, it appears that there you were doing what US psychological warfare units do, rather than being a press-officer.

Mikhailov: A good question. Since we have mentioned the United States - whenever the US is involved in any military operation, it provides information support in accordance with certain rules. 

For instance, in Afghanistan, the Americans said straight out that they would launch an information war, the essence of which could be reduced to the following: no more information about the operation would be available.

But at Pervomaiskoye, the situation proved to be unusual for the special services of Russia. No operations before Pervomaiskoye included contacts between the operation command and the media. Therefore, when I arrived in Pervomaiskoye, we set out the rules of the game - we had a T-shaped intersection at which we met with journalists, and I announced that I would speak to journalists three times a day and present any information that I actually had.

Question: And then the games began...

Mikhailov: No, there were no games. If you look at the story of the operation, you can see that there was no movement until a certain moment. Analytical work was being done, and I would not tell you about that.

Question: As far as I understand, you were set a task: to convince the public that there were no hostages there.

Mikhailov: On the very last day! The very last day, on the eve of the decisive strike. In general, I've never concealed the motivation behind my decision. Unfortunately, I also had to deny the nonsense received from Moscow. I was also in an information vacuum - we had no television or radio, we were receiving the news either from journalists or from local residents. And I was being asked absolutely stupid questions. For instance, the press service of the Interior Ministry reported that some village elders had been shot dead. Unfortunately, the information was out of context; there was too much unverified information and deliberately planted information. I wonder who made up those words spoken by Yeltsin, about the 38 snipers?

Question: As is appears, you were engaged in information warfare while the journalists freely visited Raduyev. Moreover, Raduyev had radio and television, so he was receiving much more information than you were. 

Mikhailov: It is very simple. We were in the trenches, and he was in the village. Why was information received directly from Raduyev? This seems wrong, doesn't it?

Question: It is wrong, but there is one point here. I'm always arguing with journalists: they do not understand the term "political correctness". How long after the end of Operation Desert Storm did the American public learn what happened in Beirut? Two years! This is what they call political correctness. If a journalist wants to accomplish a mission successfully...

Mikhailov: A journalist's task is slightly different. His task is to get the information, whereas the task of the special services is to provide him with the information (visible or not) which would satisfy him.

Question: It is believed that after the events of Pervomaiskoye you were dismissed from the position of PR service director, but you were actually promoted to the analytical department, and later headed the FSB's assistance programs department. As far as I understand, in the language of the special services, both open and classified methods of cooperating with journalists are covered by the term "assistance programs." Was this the lesson learned from Pervomaiskoye?

Mikhailov: Following the events of Pervomaiskoye, I was made deputy head of the information-analytical department - the think-tank for the FSB and other state structures. And, of course, when I say that I was entrusted with assistance programs, it should be noted that information is a weapon. Thus, my basic objective was to direct the necessary information not only at the media, but to certain state bodies, including explanations of our views. You might say these are disinformation objectives. No; disinformation is when it's a matter of having a direct impact on the enemy, not on society. And if we're talking of enemies - well, yes, assistance operations are operations which have an impact on the enemy. 

Question: The second campaign in Chechnya was launched, and Rosinformcenter was established under your supervision, and during the first two months you were winning the information war.

Mikhailov: And then we dried up, right? The point is that when Rosinformcenter was established, I set the following task for the representatives of various departments: we must obtain first-hand information. However, this initiative was not supported. I was offered employees of press services, but I didn't want second-hand reports. The whole problem is that the war isn't constantly action-packed. We chose a very strict schedule of holding news conferences. Media Minister Mikhail Lesin ordered us to give the first news conference at 7 a.m. We were aware that this was impossible, and moved into a state of stagnation. By the way, Yastrzhemsky dried up at the same time as Rosinformcenter.

Question: And there was also the draconian system of getting media accreditation for work in Chechnya...

Mikhailov: This is the only solution, when there are aviation fuel shortages, and when each flight means a complicated system of coordination. This is because we, with our information interests, intrude into the area of hostilities, where a commander has different problems. Undoubtedly, as a result such actions have nothing in common with journalism. After all, some decades ago writers were taken on tours to see the Belomorkanal (White Sea Canal) and shown how fast and well the prisoners were working; however, the writers were traveling by boat, they were well fed and well treated...

Question: Your book includes a rather curious selection of documents. In particular, you quote that notorious letter from the head of the State Security Department to Dudaev, requesting another million dollars for work with the media.

Mikhailov: With all due respect to journalists, if they seek in that letter any sign of the FSB or security agencies trying to defame the media, they're on the wrong track. Firstly, I should note that in order to evaluate that letter properly, it's necessary to have a good knowledge of Geliskhanov as an individual, and the situation in the State Security Committee, and the general situation in Chechnya under Dudaev. It was a time when everything was being stolen, and the only concern was finding a pretext. Secondly, I'm acquainted with many journalists who work in hot-spots, and I know they would never take bribes. And there's another misconception here: no security service agent would stoop to anything so petty as giving money to any Tom, Dick, or Harry in exchange for a favorable article. There are other people who are concerned with that; those who tell journalists what to write. So it's not up to the journalists.

Question: Are you referring to media owners?

Mikhailov: Not only them. Also people who had an interest in that war, in seeing it presented in a certain way; people who were entirely capable of shaping the editorial policy of any publication as they wished. There are countless examples of this, and you're perfectly well aware of them. I have nothing to do with the State Security Committee; I only went there once, to speak with its secretary after a civic forum at which I headed a panel.

No agency is making any official requests of me. I'm giving lectures at the Interior Ministry's Moscow Institute, at the Moscow Law Academy. I have lectured on public relations at the Culture Institute, and at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations; essentially, public relations is what I have been doing all my life. Unfortunately, there is no system at present for training specialists in providing information support for the security agencies.

(Translated by Andrei Ryabochkin)