Death of a Defector: Ion Mihai Pacepa, RIP
A leading Cold War defector leaves the stage.
This article originally appeared in Spectator.org.
On February 14, 2021, the world quietly lost one of the most intriguing, enduring figures of the Cold War. He was Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking Soviet Bloc official ever to defect to the United States.
Throughout the 1970s, Pacepa had been arguably the top official in communist Romania, behind only the insane and vicious dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. He served Ceaușescu in numerous capacities, including as intelligence chief and liaison between the brutal Securitate and the KGB. He knew where bodies were buried.
After yet another request by Romanian goons to bloody his hands, Pacepa had enough. One day in the summer of 1978, he slipped into the U.S. embassy in West Berlin while on routine business for the Romanian madman who was his boss. He said he wanted to defect. He was hustled out in a late-night flight to the United States — a country he came to love.
“It was noon when the U.S. military plane bringing me to freedom landed at the U.S. presidential airport inside Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C.,” he later told our mutual friend David Kupelian. “It was a glorious, sunny day outside…. I had an overwhelming desire to dance around in a jig all by myself. I was a free man! I was in America! The joy of finally becoming part of this magnanimous land of liberty, where nothing was impossible, was surpassed only by the joy of simply being alive.” He continued, “On that memorable day of July 28, 1978, when I became a free man, I fell to my knees and I prayed out loud for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. It took me a while. It was not easy to find the right words to express my great joy and thanks to the good Lord. In the end, all that I asked for was forgiveness for my past, freedom for my daughter and strength for my new life.”
Forgiveness and freedom. And yet, Pacepa was never totally free. He was a wanted man, hunted by the Romanian government.
Once in the United States, Pacepa lived in undisclosed locations, dodging a $2 million bounty placed on his head by his homeland. Communists officials were enraged when Pacepa in 1987 published (via Regnery) his shocking memoir of the Ceausescu era: Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae & Elena Ceausescu’s Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption. (The book was reviewed with highest praise by Michael Ledeen in the April 1988 issue of The American Spectator.) Hit squads were dispatched to assassinate him. They never found him. And ironically, Pacepa’s grisly account of Nicolae and his equally cruel and crazy wife Elena would be used as evidence for their conviction and execution by a firing squad of Romanian citizens on Christmas Day 1989.
Pacepa long outlived the Ceaușescu menace. Now, over four decades after the brutal regime began targeting him, Pacepa’s life has ended. He died at the age of 92, a victim of COVID-19.
I never had the pleasure of directly meeting Pacepa, given that he was always in hiding, though we emailed frequently for years. He went by the name “Mike,” the Anglicized version of “Mihai.” He had at least two aliases that would pop up sometimes when I got emails from him. His email address was cryptic, starting with an upper-case letter and followed by seven numbers and then @aol.com. I’m tempted to share the email address here publicly, but doing so would offer no great value. Besides, I never had permission from him to share his email address publicly.
I often got his emails in response to my articles here at The American Spectator, of which he was an avid reader. He and I even co-authored a piece, “Obama’s Sword and Shield,” for The American Spectator in May 2013 (he also did a piece for this magazine in June 2009). Pacepa was a fan of this publication.
I believe Pacepa first reached out to me in 2010, when I published my Cold War tome, Dupes. Pacepa was cited a number of times, particularly for his disturbing insights into how easily communist officials were able to manipulate gullible progressives in the West. That was a subject that troubled and perplexed Pacepa; it fascinated him but also nagged at him. He had seen it from the Truman years through Vietnam and still into the 21st century.
“They were like putty in our hands,” said Pacepa of the ability of Western liberals to be duped by communists, from the “strong leftist movements [in Western Europe] that we secretly financed” to the vast amounts of disinformation cooked up and spoon-fed to Western liberals who gobbled it up.
Consider Vietnam: “During the Vietnam War,” said Pacepa, “we spread vitriolic stories around the world, pretending that America’s presidents sent Genghis Khan-style barbarian soldiers to Vietnam who raped at random, taped electrical wires to human genitals, cut off limbs, blew up bodies and razed entire villages. Those weren’t facts. They were our tales.” (Recall a young John Kerry’s 1971 Senate testimony.) They were lies. Nonetheless, said Pacepa, millions of Americans “ended up being convinced their own president, not communism, was the enemy.”
According to Pacepa, it was the odious Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, who conceived this dezinformatsiya campaign — that is, disinformation campaign — against the United States. The Soviets devoted exorbitant spending to that cause. “Vietnam,” Andropov told Pacepa, had been “our most significant success.”
Pacepa read my book and was very pleased to see that I had focused upon what he judged one of the most significant but underreported and least understood phenomena of our times: the cynical but remarkable power of disinformation.
In fact, it turned out that he was writing a book on precisely that subject and by that very name: Disinformation. He and co-author Ron Rychlak published the book in 2013 through WND Press, and they asked me to write the foreword (former CIA director James Woolsey wrote the introduction). It was a landmark book that everyone ought to read. It will indelibly impact the way you view history and current affairs.
That groundbreaking book exposed the KGB disinformation schemes against figures like Pope Pius XII (the smearing of Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope” was begun as a mass Soviet disinformation campaign launched by a Radio Moscow broadcast in 1945) and Cardinals Stepinac and Mindszenty and Wyszyński, as well as the duplicity of groups like the World Peace Council and World Council of Churches. The material on the Soviet promulgation of the insidious Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiracy is an awakening. The authors chronicled Andropov’s anti-Zionism campaign, support of Islamic terrorism, and promotion of virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism among Middle East Arabs. By 1978, the Soviet bloc planted some 4,000 agents of influence in the Islamic world, armed with hundreds of thousands of copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (and military weapons). Militant atheistic communism sought a handmaiden in militant jihadist Islam, with extremist Muslims exploited by Soviet manipulators. They promulgated not only acts of terrorism but egregious acts of “diplomacy” like the infamous UN Resolution 3379 declaring Zionism a form of racism.
Pacepa revealed how many vicious myths created by communists have been unwittingly adopted by mainstream historians and journalists. He said the very handbook on Soviet/communist dezinformatsiya opened with this in capital letters: “IF YOU ARE GOOD AT DISINFORMATION, YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING.”
Pacepa would see these patterns in modern American “journalism,” though it wasn’t always clear if duped American journalists were wittingly or unwittingly spreading disinformation (or “fake news,” to use a modern term). Often, they simply believed what they wanted to believe — just as the Kremlin knew they would.
Beyond Disinformation, Pacepa wrote a number of fascinating works, including a remarkable 2007 book on the Kennedy assassination, titled Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination. Pacepa believed that the Soviets were involved in early steps leading toward or helping to precipitate the assassination. He argued that Oswald had been recruited by the KGB when he first entered the Soviet Union. Over the next two years, however, several things complicated the picture. By 1962, once Oswald was settled in Texas, Khrushchev (allegedly) changed his mind about killing Kennedy. Consequently, claims Pacepa, “the KGB tried to turn Oswald off.” It was too late.
For the record, this theory of Soviet involvement is disputed by Kennedy assassination investigators and by the Warren Commission, but this much we do know: Moscow did its damnedest to direct eyes of suspicion elsewhere. The Kremlin blamed the Kennedy shooting on (as Pacepa put it) “racists, the Ku Klux Klan, and Birchists.” Pacepa confirmed that the KGB had a thorough, ongoing disinformation campaign to blame the Kennedy assassination on domestic elements in the United States. He reported that on November 26, 1963, Soviet General Aleksandr Sakharovsky landed unannounced in Bucharest and met with Pacepa and other high-level members of Romanian intelligence and leadership. This was his first stop in a “blitz” tour of KGB “sister” services in the Communist Bloc. “From him,” recalled Pacepa, “we in the DIE [Romanian intelligence] learned that the KGB had already launched a worldwide disinformation operation aimed at diverting public attention away from Moscow in respect to the Kennedy assassination, and at framing the CIA as the culprit.” Nikita Khrushchev himself, said Sakharovsky, wanted it made clear to the sister services that “this was by far our first and most important task.” They circulated rumors that “the CIA was responsible for the crime” and that Lyndon Johnson and the “military-industrial complex” had been involved.
The effort would be called Operation Dragon. It became, said Pacepa, one of the most successful disinformation operations in contemporary history. Pacepa pointed to Hollywood film director Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK, which blamed the Kennedy assassination on a cabal that included the CIA, Lyndon Johnson, and the military-industrial complex. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
There are so many intriguing items like this from this intriguing figure that was Ion Mihai Pacepa. I could go on and on. One more item of interest to readers here:
The scourge that is Liberation Theology has rotten roots. Those roots go back not only to twisted Jesuit theologians in Latin America in the 1970s but, according to Pacepa, to the KGB. Pacepa went so far as to claim that Liberation Theology was created by the KGB. “The movement was born in the KGB,” stated Pacepa unequivocally, “and it had a KGB-invented name: Liberation Theology.” He said that “the birth of Liberation Theology” came from a 1960 “super-secret Party-State Dezinformatsiya [Disinformation] Program” approved by Aleksandr Shelepin, then-chairman of the KGB, and by Politburo member Aleksey Kirichenko, who coordinated the Communist Party’s international policies. The program “demanded that the KGB take secret control of the World Council of Churches,” which was based in Geneva, and use it “as cover for converting Liberation Theology into a South American revolutionary tool.”
Again, I could go on. The late Lt. Gen. Pacepa knew a lot.
Ion Mihai Pacepa died on February 14. Fittingly, he passed away at an undisclosed hospital in an undisclosed location somewhere in the United States. There was no official announcement.
The loss of Mike Pacepa is a loss for many, especially his beloved wife and family. It is also a loss for history and contemporary understanding of certain events. He shared with us gems of information and even disinformation. Perhaps most helpful of all, he warned us not only about what to believe but what not to believe.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., and senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values. Dr. Kengor is author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.