Obituaries

Lawrence Martin-Bittman, who spread disinformation as a spy before teaching at BU, dies at 87

Mr. Martin-Bittman, with a poster he created to celebrate the clearing of his name in the Czech Republic.
lisa Poole/file 2005
Mr. Martin-Bittman, with a poster he created to celebrate the clearing of his name in the Czech Republic.

Lawrence Martin-Bittman didn’t mince words when he issued a warning about the range of people who might take part in disinformation campaigns that are designed to change the course of US government.

“Purposeful and cunning games played in Washington to manipulate politicians, government bureaucrats, and the press involve many participants: domestic opponents of the current administration and foreign adversaries, friends and foes, public opinion experts, businessmen, lawyers, journalists, and, last but not least, spies,” he wrote.

The year was 1985, not 2018, however, and Mr. Martin-Bittman used that passage to open his book “The KGB and Soviet Disinformation: An Insider’s View.” No stranger to how disinformation plots worked, he wrote that he had “belonged to the Soviet intelligence apparatus for 14 years as an officer in the Czechoslovak intelligence service, including two years as deputy commander of the Department of Active Measures.”

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Not long after that book was published, he told the Globe he had studied letters to the editor published in foreign newspapers that warned African-American US athletes to stay away from the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He concluded that the letters were fake and part of a Soviet intelligence operation. “I ought to know,” he said in a 1986 interview. “I wrote hundreds of forgeries.”

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Mr. Martin-Bittman, who taught at Boston University for many years and turned to painting watercolors in retirement, was 87 when he died last Tuesday in his Rockport home.

He said in 1986 that when he began teaching at BU, just a few years after defecting, his insistence that Soviet agents had infiltrated the US news media was met with skepticism.

Some colleagues “thought I was slightly out of touch with reality,” he told the Globe. “Others thought I was trying to make a living as an anti-Communist, inventing things. It was too hard for Americans, especially journalists and scholars, to accept that deliberately false stories could be planted in our news media.”

Along with teaching, he testified before Congress and spoke to State Department officials about disinformation.

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Gradually, his audiences and colleagues came to accept “that the systematic use of deliberately distorted information to manipulate an adversary’s decision-making elite, or public opinion, has become an important international weapon and communication phenomenon,” he said.

Such pronouncements, he said, weren’t speculation. Mr. Martin-Bittman said that as a spy, he participated in disinformation campaigns against the United Stations and other nations. “The effort,” he told the Globe in 2005, “was to influence and manipulate the press.”

As an author, Mr. Martin-Bittman wrote under his given name, Ladislav Bittman.

He was born in Prague on Feb. 14, 1931. His father, a welder, also was Ladislav Bittman. His mother, the former Andela Pucenkelova, was a homemaker who added to the family’s income by renting out two rooms in their apartment.

He was a boy when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 and joined the Communist Party at 15.

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Just weeks after graduating from Charles University in Prague, party officials called him to their headquarters. “Three party bureaucrats asked me questions about my family, private life, and devotion to communism,” he recalled in “The KGB and Soviet Disinformation,” and added that he considered it “the ultimate honor” that he would become a political intelligence operative.

“At the time I was delighted,” he told the Globe in 1986. “It was interesting, adventurous, and challenging.”

In his 1985 book, he traced the history of his homeland’s covert intelligence efforts. “The Soviet love affair with disinformation and active measures began long before the Revolution of 1917 even though the operations were not identified under those labels,” he wrote.

In the section “The Art of Lying,” he added that “it is rather difficult to find an English expression that conveys the precise meaning of the Soviet term ‘active measures.’ Such terms as psychological warfare, information penetration, covert action, or ‘dirty tricks,’ reflect most but not all characteristics of Soviet active measures.”

His own affection for spying ended with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which extinguished the Prague Spring attempts at democratic reforms.

“I was bitter,” he told the Globe in 1986. “I realized I spent 14 years of my life basically working for the Soviets, and now this is what they did. It was the moment I decided to quit.”

Even though he was under KGB surveillance, he slipped away to West Germany and defected. “I had decided I didn’t want to have anything more to do with spying, so after being debriefed by the CIA, I had to start my own life from scratch like any other defector, and I was scared to death,” he recalled. “Defection is the deepest psychological crisis. You give up everything in your life: your country, your value system, your family, friends, property — well, that’s the least thing. But the most important things you have to give up.”

Initially, he gave up his name, too, and became Lawrence Martin. Later, he added his birth surname, creating a hyphenated version of his old and new selves.

After brief stints selling roofing and opening an art shop, he began teaching at Boston University in the early 1970s. Mr. Martin-Bittman, whose other books included 1972’s “The Deception Game,” taught subjects such as the history and principles of journalism, international news gathering, and propaganda. “This was not a course on Larry Martin’s dirty tricks,” he recalled in 2005. “It was knowledge to give the press protection.”

He also set up and directed BU’s Program for the Study of Disinformation.

“In comparison with my American colleagues I have one advantage,” he told The New York Times in 1994. “When I speak about various philosophies of the press it is not only theory for me. I’ve lived through all the major systems.”

In 2005, Bob Zelnick, who then chaired BU’s journalism department, told the Globe that Mr. Martin-Bittman “was a guy always looking forward, rather than looking back. He was a spy who had come in from the cold and enjoyed being indoors.”

A memorial gathering has been held for Mr. Martin-Bittman, whom the Times reported had been divorced twice and widowed once.

According to a death notice his family placed through the Pike-Newhall Funeral Home in Gloucester, he leaves his long-time companion, Liz Spaulding; a son, Michael Talmor; a daughter, Dr. Katerina Bittmanova; and several grand- and great-grandchildren.

When a heart attack in the late-1990s prompted Mr. Martin-Bittman to retire from BU, he began painting — often scenes in Prague, Gloucester, and Rockport.

“My paintings all have something childish in them,” he told the Globe in 2005. “Rockport is a town that is from a fairy tale for children, and that feeling has remained with me.”

This period of his life stood in stark contrast to his clandestine work spreading disinformation and his later efforts training aspiring journalists to spot falsehoods planted in the news – whether by the US government or foreign powers.

“If we are sensitive to any effort by our government to manipulate the press in one way or another,” he said, “we should cry even more loudly when a foreign country tries to do so.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.