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Lessons learned

Chronicle Guest View

October 24, 2012
By Dennis D. Lamb , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Editor's Note; Dennis Lamb retired from the CIA in 2002 after serving 30 years in its Directorate of Operations as a Case Officer and as an Intelligence Analyst.

He is a native of rural Chelsea.

In 1965 I traveled the Soviet Union as part of a Russian Studies Program sponsored by the University of Colorado's Department of Slavic Studies. Our group consisted of about 30 college students and two professors. Our tour of Soviet cities included the Russian city of Novgorod. There we were supposed to meet there with the Komsomol (The Communist Union of Youth). That would have been fine had the Komsomol members we encountered actually been "youth." As it turned out, however, whoever organized this encounter had us meeting on a stage with hard core Communist Party members, 40 to 50 years old on the average. The young Komsomol members sat quietly in the audience watching the spectacle, perhaps more accurately described as "our massacre." As we Americans tried to carry on a civil discourse in discussing our different views of world events and political systems, the older Communist Party members focused on tearing us apart. Unaccustomed to dealing with such people, we were all immobilized by shock. It reached the point where one female member of our group stood up and said, "The problem is that we don't understand each other, we haven't had enough contact and exchange of ideas to understand each other," a reasonable, intelligent and accurate assessment of the situation, I thought. One of the old Communist Party bulls, however, shot back: "No, we understand you perfectly. You don't understand us." This left us all speechless, including the American girl who had tried so bravely to find some common ground. How does one respond to such comments?! How does one respond to such rudeness, such inflexibility?!

Our meeting then broke down into one-on-one engagements. In my case, it was three on one as I found myself engaged in conversation with two of the old bulls and a young man who had been in the audience whom the old bulls proudly pointed out as an example of an "ordinary worker" who had the right to participate in such a meeting with Westerners.

At one point in arguing that "they" were the ones who were uninformed about the facts, I observed that Pravda (the Soviet newspaper whose name meant "Truth" in Russian) badly distorted world events and its readers' understanding of America. The young man laughed and said, "Are you saying that "Truth" does not tell the truth?" Absolutely, I replied. Trying to sound objective and not extremist like my hosts, I opted for what I then thought to be a little white lie and observed that whereas American newspapers did not always depict international affairs accurately either, "Pravda" (Truth) and Izvestia (The News), another well-known Soviet newspaper, were really bad at distorting the facts.

The two old bulls continued their verbal abuse, but I noticed that the young worker sat down and stared ahead silently as if he were mesmerized. It was apparent that the idea that Pravda (Truth) might not be telling the truth had never occurred to him before and the implications of this had left him in a mild state of shock.

I was pleased with myself for having scored one on the thinking of at least one Soviet and found myself inwardly laughing at his naivet until I returned to the United States and read our own newspapers in an entirely different light. Weeks of reading Soviet newspapers had taught me how to read between the lines, look for and recognize omissions and connect dots in a way I had never done before. As a consequence, I came to see Americans in many ways as mirror images of their Soviet counterparts brainwashed by the various forms of news media they thought were free and truthful but in reality were very much laced with their own biases, omissions, disinformation, and distortions that left the public cocksure that it was well informed and had all the answers but in fact was left unable to read between the lines and connect dots to form unbiased opinions and draw its own conclusions. Insofar as there was a difference, it was that in the Soviet Union the government tightly controlled the news media, whereas in the United States the news media, in effect, controlled themselves in catering to popular opinion, established beliefs and expectations in giving the public what the public wanted to hear. But the end result was the same two societies at loggerheads because both believed only they knew the truth and the other side was 100 percent wrong. I slowly came to the painful realization that I was as nave as the young Soviet worker I had met in Novgorod and laughed at as being naive. And then I had to laugh at myself.

As we approach the upcoming November elections, it appears to me that the Republicans and Democrats are almost as bitterly divided and hostile toward each other as the Soviets and Americans were in 1965 and for the same reasons.

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face as voters this year is keeping an open mind and accepting the possibility that we may not know all the answers after all and need to try to inform ourselves of the issues more completely. To this end, we need to make an effort to listen to and read news media that we have dismissed or ignored in the past as "biased." We also need to look for omissions, distortions and misrepresentations in the media that we have long accepted as reliable and truthful. Too often we latch onto one news channel and read one newspaper when we should be getting our information from multiple and opposing sources. Readers may also want to check statements the candidates make on either, Truth or to send an email to either or

I suggest also that in discussing the issues with others, we to try to listen and be courteous and civil without losing our tempers and dismissing those who disagree with us out of hand as "idiots" or making accusations, i.e., to be tolerant of those who do not agree with us. We are all Americans in the same boat, a boat riding very low in dangerous waters, and we need to work together patiently and hard to save our children and our grandchildren from the bad situation that we have created and for which we and only we are responsible. And whoever wins the Presidency, we should give him the respect due his office.

The thoughts outlined above represent my personal views and not the views of my former employer.



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