Former Czech Spy Tells It Like It Was

SSU panelists warn about dangers of “fake news”

Shelley A. Sackett

Dillon and M-B

Peggy Dillon, SSU Associate Professor and panel moderator, listens as Dr. Martin-Bittman talks about his years as a Czech spy.

 

What do a former Czech spy who served as a post-war intelligence officer specializing in disinformation for the Czech Intelligence Service and Earth Day have in common? According to Peggy Dillon, Associate Professor of Communications at Salem State University and member of the SSU Earth Day Committee, everything.

 

“This year’s Earth Day theme on campus is ‘It’s Your World, It’s Your Future: Get Involved,’” she said. “I thought a panel about media literacy — and fake news and disinformation in particular — would be a timely topic for media consumers in general, as well as for environmentalists.”

 

Dillon had agreed to create and moderate a panel about media literacy as part of SSU’s 2017 Earth Days events. The panelists would examine how disinformation and fake news have permeated the media landscape and discuss media-literacy strategies for telling the difference between truth and fiction in the news.

 

She titled the panel, “How to Recognize Disinformation and Fake News: Be a Media-Literate Advocate for your Cause” and invited SSU Communications professors Jane Regan and Cindy Vincent to participate. Regan, a lecturer in Multimedia Journalism who is also an investigative journalist, would address “both-siderism” and mainstream vs. “alternative” media coverage, particularly of environmental topics. Assistant professor Vincent would discuss filter bubbles, media distractions and the ability to discern credible sources.

 

But she still wanted a third panelist to round out the discussion.

 

As part of her “newly ramped-up political activism” following the 2016 elections, Dillon started attending meetings at the Rockport Unitarian Universalist Church of like-minded concerned citizens. There she heard about Lawrence Martin-Bittman, a Rockport resident whom a member knew from church.

 

Né Ladislav Bittman in 1931 in Prague, Martin-Bittman defected to the United States in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Prior to that, he was an expert in creating and disseminating Soviet propagandistic disinformation, spreading anonymously and deliberately distorted information to deceive and manipulate public opinion.

 

“I met Dr. Martin-Bittman for lunch and heard his life story, and immediately invited him to join the panel. He agreed,” Dillon said. After all, who better to address the topic of fake news and disinformation than one who not only could talk the talk, but had also — literally — walked the walk?

 

And for nearly thirty minutes on Tuesday, over 30 students, faculty members and visitors were captivated by the 86-year-old ex-spy’s stories about how he came to be recruited by the Czech Secret Service and the kinds of disinformation campaigns he engaged in.

 

“It’s nice to be back again on academic soil,” the former Boston University professor and author said.

 

As a teenaged student of international law at Charles University in Prague, Martin-Bittman anticipated a career as a diplomat. Instead, upon graduation, he and 37 of his 42 fellow classmates were “invited” to the Central Committee of the Communist Party headquarters where they were told they would work in the Czech Intelligence Service. “I didn’t even know Czechoslovakia had an intelligence service,” he said.

 

Overnight, he became a spy.

 

Over the course of 14 years as an operative, he had 30 names and supervised hundreds of other agents, eventually becoming deputy commander of the disinformation department, leaking carefully constructed false messages to reporters in order to influence people and politicians.

 

In 1968, when the Soviet invasion Czechoslovakia effectively ended the Prague Spring and his country’s brief attempt to enact democratic reforms, Martin-Bittman realized he had spent the last14 years of his life “basically working for the Russians.” He decided to quit and defected to the United States later that year.

 

He was tried in absentia in a military court in Czechoslovakia, which convicted him of treason. “I was treated as a defector and hunted for decades,” he said. One of his students at Boston University was even recruited to spy on him, he discovered later to his dismay. His death sentence was recently revoked. “I never thought the Communist regime would collapse in my lifetime,” he said.

 

No stranger to the concept of “fake news”, Martin-Bittman is alarmed by the current state of global media with reports of cyber warfare, information weaponization and information wars. “We live in a world of deception and manipulation,” he warned.

 

“For the United States or any other democratic country with a free press, spreading propagandistic information might be a dangerous, self-destructive weapon, a ticking time bomb that can explode in the perpetrator’s backyard,” he continued.

 

He is quite concerned about the Russian doctrine of information warfare and its implications in the U.S. presidential election campaign of 2016, which he feels demonstrated the importance of developing new defenses in protecting the American democratic system. “Misinformation is information that is bad, wrong or mistaken. Disinformation is deliberate and malicious,” he said.

 

Dillon believes journalists and media educators have an important role to play right now in helping the public understand the difference between fact and fiction in their media diet, and she hopes people came away from the panel discussion with a heightened awareness about the prevalence of false or distorted information in our media diet. Martin-Bittman goes one step further.

 

“People must realize that there is an urgent need to educate the new generation of journalists about the new information environment and the dangers of disinformation,” he said. “The best protection against any kind of propaganda is strong analytical press capable of professional analysis of all suspicious information, wherever it comes from.”

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Chef Joe Raises the Bar at Village Tavern; New Menu Offers More than Just Bar Food

Ingemi and Peterson

“Chef Joe” displays his technique while preparing one of his signature dishes, Beef Strogonoff. PHOTO CREDIT: Shelley A. Sackett

Joseph Peterson — “Chef Joe” — can pinpoint the exact moment he knew he wanted to be a chef. He was a 12-year-old boy living in Dryden, New York, about an hour south of Syracuse. It was 10 o’clock at night, his mother was at work, and he was hungry. “I made stir fry beef with noodles and it tasted so good,” he said with a broad smile. “I had so much fun making it that the next day I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Right around that time, Dryden got its first cable service. Peterson wasted no time discovering cooking shows and famed chef Ming Tsai’s “East Meets West” program particularly captivated the tween. “He showed people how he cooked inside his restaurant, which was French-American-Asian. As a kid, I watched that show every Saturday and wanted to grow up to be just like him,” Peterson said.

Fast forward to 2009 when Peterson, fresh out of Boston’s Cordon Bleu cooking school, went to work for his idol at Tsai’s acclaimed Wellesley restaurant, Blue Ginger. After training under the celebrity chef, he went on to become executive chef at Jerry Remy’s, the downtown Boston restaurant near Fenway Park.

That’s where “Chef Joe” was working when Andrew Ingemi, who co-owns Village Tavern with his father, Arthur, realized that he would be a perfect fit for their Salem restaurant. “Jerry Remy’s gave him experience with volume,” Ingemi said. “I needed someone who would have no trouble with an October crowd. With Joe’s experience of a busy restaurant with Red Sox games multiple times a week, it was an easy choice.”

Ingemi hired Peterson last fall and the two unveiled an overhauled menu last month.

Peterson in the kitchen

Village Tavern co-owner Andrew Ingemi and Chef Joseph Peterson at a quiet moment in the bar.    PHOTO CREDIT: Shelley A. Sackett

Part of Ingemi’s dream was to make Village Tavern known for higher end tavern fare rather than just bar food. The new menu features such dishes as Sweet and Sour Duck and 28-day dry-aged grass fed sirloin, which “may be the very best steak you’ll ever have, other than at a fancy steakhouse in Boston,” he said.

Peterson is equally excited about the fusion side of the menu, which mixes traditional appetizers and Asian touches in such inventions as Philly Steak Egg Roll and Buffalo Chicken Ragoon.

Dear to Peterson’s heart is his Beef Strogonoff, which is a hearty and tasty dish his mother used to make once a week. His special secret? He adds sour cream at the end to give it a “zing” (his mom used heavy cream).

“A lot of cooking is about technique,” Peterson said as he prepared this dish for the Salem Gazette. “Stroganoff is simple, but hard to make it taste well.”

Ingemi’s family has been in the restaurant business in Salem since the 1970’s. His great-grandfather is the Steve of Steve’s Market and his father and grandfather have owned many eateries over the years. Ingemi didn’t join them until 2012, when his father and brother were opening the Village Tavern and asked him to help out. At the time, he was working in Boston at State Street Bank. He thought he would stay a year. Five years later, he’s still there.

“I fell in love with working with my family and making the restaurant better. It’s so rewarding,” he said. “It’s kind of fun — we have a big history in Salem.”

He’s also proud of “Chef Joe” and all the staff for “kicking it up a notch” to be up to Joe’s standards in the kitchen. “We’re able to give guests the overall experience we’ve been wanting to give them for the last couple of year,” Ingemi said.

Peterson is delighted to be in Salem after many years in Boston. While he’s looking forward to making an impact with his food, he is just as eager to take a leadership role among his employees in his kitchen. In the six months he has been at Village Tavern, he has already promoted many from within and has built a team spirit and loyalty among his staff.

“Taking a cook and making him sous-chef or taking a peeler and making him a prep chef, that the kind of stuff that excites me. I like growing people. I could do everything myself back there, but that’s not the idea,” he said.

Salem First Muster Soldiers on Despite April Fool’s Day Storm

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More than 100 uniformed National Guardsmen and women, members of Veteran’s organizations and civilian onlookers braved the heavy snow and fierce winds Saturday morning to mark the 380th Anniversary of the first military muster in the United States in the very birthplace of the National Guard — Salem.

Soldiers and senior leaders of the Massachusetts National Guard, Veteran’s organizations, military re-enactors and living history groups were on hand to lend an authentic and solemn air to the event.

The first muster —or military drill — took place in Salem Common in 1637, the year after the National Guard was formed. Saturday’s event was a yearly celebration commemorating significant moments in the history of the Massachusetts National Guard as well as the origin of the Army National Guard.

In January 2013, President Barak Obama signed legislation initiated by Massachusetts Congressman John Tierney designating Salem as the birthplace of the National Guard.

Sponsored by the Second Corps Cadets Veterans Association, this 380th milestone anniversary kicked off at 9:30 a.m. with a wreath-laying ceremony at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and at the nearby gravesite of Captain Stephen Abbott, founder and first commander of the Second Corps. All stood as a single trumpet played a plaintive “Taps” in the acoustically splendid church. Each note seemed to hover weightless above the pews.

Chief of the Guard Bureau, 4-star General Joseph Lengyel, was this year’s guest of honor. He addressed the crowd at St. Peter’s Church before venturing outside to lay the wreath and lead the procession. “It’s good to be home,” the Peabody native declared. “I am proud of who we are and what we mean to this country. I am proud of all these people — doctors, lawyers, store owners, teachers, policemen and women — who have committed to keeping our country safe abroad and at home.”

Lengyel serves as the 28th chief of the National Guard Bureau and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is a military adviser to the President, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Council.

Captain Phillip Jenkins, Battery Commander C Battery 1/101 Field Artillery, followed, raising a chuckle when he said, “This is the first time you’ll see a Captain following a 4-star General.” He gave a brief but informative history of the National Guard and what the term “citizen soldier” means, also praising the Second Corps Cadet Veterans Association for “maintaining camaraderie and service to fellow soldiers.”

Colonel Cheryl Poppe, a Salem resident, looks forward to Salem First Muster every year. She retired from the Massachusetts National Guard in 2008 and is now Superintendent of Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, where she oversees 136 long-term care and 194 dormitory residents. “I am delighted to see the press here and to see how many intrepid residents and members of the Second Corps ventured out on this snowy day,” she said, adding, “I am very proud to have been part of this. There is a lot of benevolent work here.”

Captain Jim Sweet, who joined the National Guard in 1977 and was battery commander of the 102nd battalion, rang the St. Peter’s Church bell, the same one that has rung after the death of every United States President since George Washington. A gift from King George to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the original bell arrived in Salem in1733 and was replaced in 1740. “Salem was at the seat of government during the Revolutionary War,” he reminded the crowd.

After a ceremony at Armory Park on Essex Street, participants marched to the Salem Common, where troops on horse back, some wearing vintage uniforms, re-enacted the first muster with: formations of troops, presentation of honors, inspection of troops, honors to the nation and remarks from Governor Charlie Baker, General Joseph L. Lengyel and Major General Gary W. Keefe. Tents billowed in the gusts that sent wind chill factors below freezing and caused a smaller turnout than in 2016. For those who stuck it out, there was the promise of a late-morning cannon salute.

One such resolute fan was Jerry Schmitt of Salem, who looked at his heavy coat, boots and gloves and laughed remembering last year’s commemoration in almost 70-degree weather. Although he never served in the National Guard, he tries to attend the Salem First Muster every year. “I’m just here to support the troops,” he said.