Secret British ‘Black Propaganda’ Campaign Targeted Cold War Enemies | Cold War
The British government has waged a secret “black propaganda” campaign for decades, targeting Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia with leaflets and reports from fake sources aimed at destabilizing enemies of the Cold War by fostering racial tensions, sowing chaos, inciting violence and bolstering anti-Communist ideas, newly declassified documents have revealed.
The effort, led from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s by a unit in London that was part of the Foreign Office, focused on Cold War enemies such as the Soviet Union and China, the left-wing liberation groups and leaders the UK has seen. as a threat to its interests
The campaign also aimed to mobilize Muslims against Moscow, promoting greater religious conservatism and radical ideas. To appear authentic, the documents incited hatred of Israel.
Recently declassified UK government documents reveal hundreds of extensive and costly operations.
“These outings are among the largest of the past two decades. It is very clear now that the UK engaged in more black propaganda than historians assume and that these efforts were more systemic, ambitious and offensive. Despite official denials, [this] went way beyond simply exposing Soviet disinformation,” said Rory Cormac, a subversion and intelligence history expert who found the material while researching his new book, How to Stage a Coup: And Ten Other Lessons from the World of Secret Governmentto be published next month.
The Information Research Department (IRD) was established by the Labor government after World War II to counter Soviet propaganda attacks on Britain. Its activities mirrored the Cold War propaganda operations of the CIA and the extensive efforts of the USSR and its satellites.
the Observer last year revealed the major IRD campaign in Indonesia in 1965 that helped encourage anti-communist massacres that left hundreds of thousands dead. There the IRD prepared pamphlets supposedly written by Indonesian patriots, but actually created by British propagandists, calling on Indonesians to eliminate the PKI, then the largest communist party in the non-communist world.
But the thousands of declassified documents studied by Cormac provide by far the best insight into the IRD’s disinformation operations.
“The Brits were just one player among many, and quite a minor player too, compared to the amount of material produced and released by the bigger players,” said Cormac, professor of international relations at the ‘University of Nottingham.
“The UK didn’t just invent material, as the Soviets routinely did, but they definitely intended to mislead the public in order to get the message across.”
The IRD employed 360 people at its peak in the mid-1960s. However, its top-secret Special Editorial Unit, responsible for the black propaganda effort, was much smaller. From its base in some office in Westminster, the unit used a variety of tactics to manipulate public opinion.
One was to produce “reports” sent to warn other governments, selected journalists, and think tanks about “Soviet subversion” or similar threats.
The reports included carefully selected facts and analysis, often gleaned from intelligence provided by the UK security services, but appeared to come from seemingly independent analysts and institutions that were in reality created and run by the IRD. One of the first, created in 1964, was the International Committee of Inquiry into the Organizations of the Communist Front.
Another tactic was to forge statements from official Soviet institutions and agencies. Between 1965 and 1972, the IRD forged at least 11 statements from Novosti, the Soviet state news agency. One followed Egypt’s defeat in the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967 and underlined Soviet anger at Egypt’s ‘waste’ of so much of the arms and materiel Moscow had provided. in the country.
The IRD also forged literature claiming to be from the Muslim Brotherhood, a mass Islamist organization that had a significant following across the Middle East. A pamphlet accused Moscow of encouraging the 1967 war, criticized the quality of Soviet military equipment and called the Soviets “dirty-tongued atheists” who viewed Egyptians as little more than “peasants who lived all their lives by nurturing reactionary Islamic superstitions”.
The IRD also created an entirely fictitious radical Islamist organization called the League of Believers, which attacked Russians as non-believers and blamed Arab defeats on lack of religious faith, a standard trope among religious conservatives in Russia. era.
“Why is the Arab nation currently afflicted with so much grief and disaster? Why were the brave forces defeated in jihad by the wicked pagan Zionists?… The answers are [easily] to find… we are quickly deviating from the right path, we are following the path chosen for us by communist-atheists for whom religion is a form of social disease,” it reads.
Such claims became increasingly prevalent in Egypt in the years that followed, as a resurgence of religion swept through the key strategic state.
The IRD was also not above encouraging opposition to Israel if it made its forgeries more convincing, Cormac told the Observer.
A statement issued by the IRD in February 1967 also claimed to be from the Muslim Brotherhood and attacked Egypt for using chemical weapons in its battle against a coalition of religious and tribal conservatives in Yemen backed by Britain and the United States. Saudi Arabia.
The IRD leaflets echo other claims by radical Islamists, saying that military misdeeds should not be blamed on “atheists, imperialists or Zionist Jews”, but on “Egyptians who are supposed to be believers”.
“These Egyptian murderers have gone too far in their hypocrisy without being punished, but they can no longer claim to believe in God, his prophet and his holy book,” reads a leaflet, asking: “If the Egyptians must leave at war and fighting, why do they not direct their armies against the Jews?
Cormac said that, as with much of IRD’s output, the claims made were factually accurate, but the tone and false source were designed to mislead. The Yemen leaflets were intended to pressure Egyptian leaders into agreeing to a ceasefire.
Other documents highlighted Moscow’s low opinion of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the limited aid offered by the Soviets to Palestinian armed nationalist groups. This contrasted with the more favorable position of the Chinese, with the aim of widening the gap between the two communist powers.
A major move was aimed at undermining the regime of Ian Smith in Rhodesia, the former colony which unilaterally declared independence from the UK in 1965 in a bid to maintain white minority rule.
The IRD created a fake group of white Rhodesians who opposed Smith. His leaflets attacked him for lying, creating “chaos” and crippling the economy. “The whole world is against us… We have to stop while we can still save our country,” said one.
Attempts to isolate African nationalists sometimes involved inciting racial tension. In early 1963, the IRD forged a statement from the World Federation of Democratic Youth, a Soviet front organization, which denounced Africans as uncivilized, “primitive” and morally weak. The forgery received media coverage across the continent, with many newspapers reacting intemperately.
A similar forgery in 1966 highlighted Africa’s “backwardness” and “political immaturity”. Another, a statement purportedly from Novosti, blamed poor academic performance at an international university in Moscow on the quality of black African students enrolled there. IRD sent over 1,000 copies to addresses in the developing world.
Cormac said there was no doubt that senior British politicians were aware of the IRD’s work.
In 1964, Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home told the IRD to target Ghana for fear that its mercurial president, Kwame Nkrumah, would lean towards Moscow. Months later, the new Labor Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, encouraged the Foreign Office to maintain a “potential for black propaganda and to produce black material from time to time”. Walker was particularly interested in fomenting racial tensions between Africans and Chinese.
As with most of these efforts, the impact of IRD campaigns was often difficult to assess. On one occasion, IRD officials were able to report that a newspaper in Zanzibar had printed one of their forgeries on Soviet racism and that the publication provoked an angry reaction. This was considered a major achievement. Officials were also elated when the Kenyan press used fake documents about the 1967 Six-Day War and when newspapers across much of the Islamic world published a bogus Novosti bulletin about the conflict. From time to time, Western newspapers also unwittingly used IRD documents.
Although the IRD was closed in 1977, researchers are now finding evidence that similar efforts continued for nearly another decade.
“The [new documents] are particularly important as precursors to more modern efforts to put intelligence in the public domain.
“Liz Truss has a ‘Government Information Cell,’ and Defense Intelligence tweets daily about Russian ‘pre-but’ plots and gaining the upper hand in the information war, but for much of the Cold War, the UK used much more underhanded means,” Cormac said.