President Xi Jinping accompanies Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Beijing in 2018. (Photo: KUANG LINHUA / CHINA DAILY)
Media outlets claimed China is building a secret station in Cuba to spy on the US, citing anonymous intelligence officials. But the Pentagon admitted this story is false. It is part of an information warfare campaign against Beijing and could sabotage attempts at diplomacy.
Originally published in Geopolitical Economy.
Anonymous US intelligence officials used the media this June to spread a rumor claiming that the Chinese government is building a massive spy base in Cuba, 100 miles from Florida.
There was however a glaring problem with this story: The US Department of Defense said it is false.
Top Pentagon officials came out publicly and clarified that the reports are “not accurate”, that China is in fact not building a spy base in Cuba.
This is the latest example of a series of false stories that have been laundered through the mainstream corporate media by US spy agencies, particularly the CIA, which seek to advance US foreign policy interests and demonize adversaries like China, Cuba, and Russia.
Recent disinformation campaigns of similar provenance have included Havana Syndrome – the debunked myth that Cuba, China, and/or Russia was supposedly attacking US spies and diplomats with pulsed microwave weapons – or “Bountygate” – the false CIA claim that Russia was paying the Taliban bounties in order to kill US soldiers during the war in Afghanistan.
The CIA has perfected the art of using the media to manipulate public opinion, to push people in certain political directions and manufacture consent for war.
One of the co-founders of the CIA, Frank Wisner, famously said the spy agency has contacts all across the media and can play the press like a “mighty Wurlitzer” – a kind of old musical instrument.
Anonymous US officials use media to spread false story demonizing China and Cuba
The latest disinformation operation started on June 8, when the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Cuba to Host Secret Chinese Spy Base Focusing on U.S.”.
The report relied entirely on the claims of anonymous “U.S. officials familiar with highly classified intelligence”.
Just a few hours after this Wall Street Journal exclusive bombshell came out, Reuters quoted the Pentagon denying the claims.
A US Defense Department spokesman, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, stated, “I can tell you based on the information that we have, that that is not accurate, that we are not aware of China and Cuba developing a new type of spy station… In terms of that particular report, no, it’s not accurate”.
In fact, after the article was published in the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper updated the story with a quote from the spokesman for the US National Security Council, John Kirby.
“This report is not accurate”, Kirby reiterated.
Kirby previously served as the Pentagon’s press secretary. This shows how it is US spy agencies that are spreading this false story about China, whereas the US military recognizes that there is no evidence, and may be concerned of the political consequences.
Despite the fact that the Pentagon publicly denied the story, many other major US media outlets echoed the rumor.
The New York Times, CNN, and Politico published their own versions of the debunked story, all citing anonymous US officials.
CBS News warned with a paranoid, cold war-style tone, “Prospect of Chinese spy base in Cuba unsettles Washington”.
Cuba and China denounce the US spy agency information warfare
For its part, Cuba forcefully condemned these reports, stating that they are false.
Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio said the accusation is “untrue and unfounded”, arguing that the articles were “promoted with the malicious intention to justify the unprecedented reinforcement of the economic blockade, destabilization and the aggression against Cuba”.
Cuba rejects any “foreign military presence in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the numerous military bases and troops of the US, and especially the military base that illegally occupies a portion of our national territory in the province of Guantánamo”, Fernandez de Cossio emphasized.
A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, pointed out, “Spreading rumors and slander is a common tactic of the US”.
“The US has illegally occupied the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba for a long time, engaged in ulterior activities, and imposed an embargo on Cuba for more than 60 years”, Wang said.
The Chinese official argued that Washington “should reflect on itself, stop interfering in Cuba’s internal affairs under the banner of freedom, democracy and human rights, and immediately cancel its commercial and financial blockade of Cuba”.
It is not clear why exactly anonymous US spies would spread gray propaganda that even the Pentagon acknowledges is false. But it may have the effect of sabotaging any attempts at improving diplomatic relations between China and the United States.
In fact, just two days before this false story in the Wall Street Journal came out, there were reports that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was planning a visit to China within the upcoming weeks.
The paranoid media campaign put pressure on Blinken to cancel the trip.
MSNBC strongly implied that the secretary of state should do so, in an interview with the National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby.
Something very similar happened in February, when the press manufactured a scandal about a Chinese balloon that entered US airspace.
US officials later admitted that the floating object was likely a weather balloon that had been blown off course by unexpected weather.
However, the US military spent millions of dollars shooting down the object, along with several other balloons – one of which was later reported to belong to a hobbyist club called the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade and which probably cost around $12.
The February media scare successfully demonized China among the US public and had the impact of pressuring Secretary of State Blinken to cancel a trip that he had planned to Beijing.
Pentagon fears that the US would lose a war with China
The Pentagon may also be motivated to slightly push back against the information war that US intelligence agencies are waging on China because the Defense Department is concerned that this hybrid war could escalate into a conventional armed conflict.
Politico reported this June, “The Pentagon Is Freaking Out About a Potential War With China (Because America might lose)”.
The article disclosed that the US military has held numerous war games to scope out a potential crisis with Beijing, and Washington has faced disastrous consequences.
The former vice chair of the Pentagon’s powerful Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten, confessed that the Chinese military “just ran rings around us”.
Dozens of versions of the above war-game scenario have been enacted over the last few years, most recently in April by the House Select Committee on competition with China. And while the ultimate outcome in these exercises is not always clear — the U.S. does better in some than others — the cost is. In every exercise the U.S. uses up all its long-range air-to-surface missiles in a few days, with a substantial portion of its planes destroyed on the ground. In every exercise the U.S. is not engaged in an abstract push-button war from 30,000 feet up like the ones Americans have come to expect since the end of the Cold War, but a horrifically bloody one.
And that’s assuming the U.S.-China war doesn’t go nuclear.
“The thing we see across all the wargames is that there are major losses on all sides. And the impact of that on our society is quite devastating,” said Becca Wasser, who played the role of the Chinese leadership in the Select Committee’s wargame and is head of the gaming lab at the Center for a New American Security. “The most common thread in these exercises is that the United States needs to take steps now in the Indo-Pacific to ensure the conflict doesn’t happen in the future. We are hugely behind the curve. Ukraine is our wakeup call. This is our watershed moment.”
CIA’s bogus “Bountygate” myth extends US war in Afghanistan
A similar disinformation operation occurred in 2020, when US spy agencies spread a false story known as “Bountygate”.
The New York Times took the lead in this information warfare campaign, in a June 2020 report titled “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says“.
The newspaper quoted anonymous “American intelligence officials [who] have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing Coalition forces in Afghanistan – including targeting American troops”.
This story was lampooned from the beginning, because the US had been militarily occupying Afghanistan for 19 years as of 2020, and it was never explained why the Taliban would need to be bribed in order to attack the foreign soldiers occupying their homeland.
But the intention behind the gray propaganda became clear just a few days after this false story was plastered across the media.
The US House of Representatives Armed Service Committee cited the dubious rumor in order to justify voting on July 1 to block the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, thereby extending the war.
Meanwhile, a mere two weeks after this report came out, the Pentagon publicly stated that it was probably not true.
Then US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said they had found no evidence to substantiate the claims of “Bountygate”.
“All the defense intelligence agencies have been unable to corroborate that report”, Esper said, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
A year later, in 2021, when the scandal had largely been forgotten, the Daily Beast released an article quietly acknowledging, “U.S. Intel Walks Back Claim Russians Put Bounties on American Troops”.
NBC News also reported: “Remember those Russian bounties for dead U.S. troops? Biden admin says the CIA intel is not conclusive”.
The media outlet added, “The Biden administration made clear [on April 15] that the CIA has only ‘low to moderate confidence’ in its intel on alleged Russian bounties for U.S. troops”.
This story revealed that it was the CIA that had promoted the false “Bountygate” myth in the first place.
Ben Norton is an investigative journalist and analyst. He is the founder and editor of Geopolitical Economy Report and is based in Latin America.