A campaign led by the Information Research Department (IRD), which was established by the British Labour government to spread secret black propaganda, was recently exposed after some documents were declassified.
According to newly declassified documents, the British government ran 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 cold war adversaries by inciting racial tensions, sowing chaos, inciting violence, and reinforcing anti-communist ideas.
From the mid-1950s until the late 1970s, a unit within the Foreign Office in London focused on cold war foes such as the Soviet Union and China, as well as leftwing liberation movements and leaders who the UK considered as threats to its interests.
The campaign also aimed to rally Muslims against Moscow by encouraging religious conservatism and extreme beliefs. To appear genuine, the documents promoted anti-Israel sentiment.
Hundreds of extensive and costly operations are revealed in recently declassified British government documents.
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“These releases are among the most important of the past two decades. It’s very clear now that the UK engaged in more black propaganda than historians assume and these efforts were more systemic, ambitious and offensive. Despite official denials, [this] went far beyond merely exposing Soviet disinformation,” according to Rory Cormac, a subversion and intelligence expert who discovered the material while researching his new book, How to Stage a Coup: And Ten Other Lessons from the World of Secret Statecraft, which will be published next month.
The Information Research Department (IRD) was established by the Labour government after WWII to fight Soviet propaganda attacks on the United Kingdom. Its activities matched the CIA’s cold war propaganda operations as well as the Soviet Union and it’s satellites’ extensive efforts.
Last year, the Observer disclosed the IRD’s massive campaign in Indonesia in 1965, which aided in the encouragement of anti-communist murders that killed hundreds of thousands of people. There, the IRD prepared booklets ostensibly authored by Indonesian nationalists but actually written by British propagandists, urging Indonesians to exterminate the PKI, the world’s biggest communist party at the time.
However, Cormac’s analysis of hundreds of declassified papers provides the most comprehensive picture yet of the IRD’s deception activities.
“The British were only one actor among many, and a fairly minor actor too, compared with the quantity of material being produced and disseminated by the bigger players,” said Cormac, professor of international relations at Nottingham University.
“The UK did not simply invent material, as the Soviets systematically did, but they definitely intended to deceive audiences in order to get the message across.”
At its peak in the mid-1960s, the IRD employed 360 employees. However, the Special Editorial Unit, which was in charge of the black propaganda campaign, was significantly smaller. The squad deployed a range of strategies to alter public opinion from its base in a plain office in Westminster.
One was to write “reports” that were distributed to other countries, media, and think tanks to warn them about “Soviet subversion” or other threats.
The reports contained carefully picked facts and analysis, which looked to emanate from allegedly independent analysts and institutions that were in actuality set up and operated by the IRD. The International Committee for the Investigation of Communist Front Organizations was one of the earliest, founded in 1964.
Another strategy was to fabricate official Soviet institutions and agencies’ statements. The IRD faked at least 11 statements from Novosti, the Soviet state-run news service, between 1965 and 1972. One came after Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 six-day war with Israel, and expressed Soviet displeasure at Egypt’s “waste” of so much of the guns and equipment Moscow had provided.
The IRD also forgeried literature appearing to be from the Muslim Brotherhood, a large Islamist group with a large following in the Middle East. One pamphlet blamed Moscow of instigating the 1967 war, slammed Soviet military equipment, and referred to the Soviets as “filthy-tongued atheists” who saw Egyptians as “peasants who lived all their lives nursing reactionary Islamic superstitions.”
The IRD also created the League of Believers, a completely fictional radical Islamist organization that targeted Russians as non-believers and blamed Arab setbacks on a lack of religious faith, a common cliché among religious conservatives at the time.
“Why is the Arab nation at this time afflicted by so much sorrow and disaster? Why were the brave forces defeated in the jihad by the evil heathen Zionists?… The answers are [easily] to be found … we are departing fast from the right path, we are following the course chosen for us by the communist-atheists for whom religion is a form of social disease,” it read.
As a rebirth of religion swept the vital strategic state in the following years, such statements became more common.
Cormac told the Observer that the IRD was not above inciting anti-Israel sentiment in order to make its forgeries more convincing.
In February 1967, the IRD issued a statement claiming to be from the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing Egypt of employing chemical weapons in Yemen against a coalition of religious conservatives and tribes backed by Britain and Saudi Arabia.
The IRD’s flyers repeated earlier statements made by radical Islamists, saying that military errors should be blamed on “Egyptians who are supposed to be believers” rather than “atheists, imperialists, or Zionist Jews.”
“These Egyptian murderers have gone too far in their hypocrisy unpunished, but they can no longer pretend to be believers in God and in His Prophet and in His sacred book,” a leaflet read, asking: “If the Egyptians have to go to war and fight, why don’t they direct their armies against the Jews?”
The assertions presented, like much of the IRD’s output, were factually correct, but the tone and fake source were intended to deceive, according to Cormac. The purpose of the Yemen leaflets was to put pressure on Egypt’s government to agree to a ceasefire.
Other documents detailed Moscow’s disapproval of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Soviets’ limited assistance to Palestinian armed nationalist factions. In an attempt to widen the gap between the two communist powers, the Chinese took a more sympathetic posture.
One significant campaign aimed to destabilize Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia, a former British colony that declared independence from the UK unilaterally in 1965 in order to maintain white minority control.
The IRD created a fake white Rhodesian organisation to fight Smith. Its flyers accused him of lying, causing “chaos,” and causing the economy to suffer. “The whole world is against us … We must call a halt while we can still save our country,” one urged.
Attempts to isolate African nationalists occasionally resulted in racial tensions. The IRD manufactured a statement from the World Federation of Democratic Youth, a Soviet front organization, denouncing Africans as uncivilized, “primitive,” and morally weak in early 1963. The forgery was widely reported across Europe, with many newspapers responding irrationally.
In 1966, a similar forgery highlighted Africa’s “backwardness” and “political immaturity.” Another, apparently from Novosti, blamed poor academic results at a Moscow-based international university to the poor quality of the black African students enrolling there. The IRD distributed over 1,000 copies to addresses around the world.
Cormac believes that senior British policymakers were aware of the IRD’s efforts.
Alec Douglas-Home, the Conservative prime minister, ordered the IRD to target Ghana in 1964, fearing that its erratic president, Kwame Nkrumah, was leaning toward Moscow. Months later, Patrick Gordon Walker, the new Labour foreign secretary, urged the Foreign Office to retain “black propaganda potential and, from time to time, produce black material.” Walker was especially keen in inflaming racial tensions between Africans and Chinese people.
The impact of the IRD’s campaigns, like most such efforts, was impossible to assess. IRD officials were able to report that one of their forgeries regarding Soviet racism was published in a Zanzibar newspaper, and that the publication elicited an outraged response. This was seen as a significant accomplishment. Officials were especially happy when phony news regarding the 1967 six-day battle appeared in Kenyan newspapers, as well as when a fake Novosti bulletin appeared in publications across much of the Islamic world. Western newspapers occasionally adopted IRD materials unintentionally.
Despite the fact that the IRD was shut down in 1977, researchers have discovered evidence that similar activities lasted for almost another decade.
“The [new documents] are particularly significant as a precursor to more modern efforts of putting intelligence into the public domain.
“Liz Truss has a ’government information cell’, and defence intelligence sends out daily tweets to ‘pre-but’ Russian plots and gain the upper hand in the information war, but for much of the cold war the UK used far more devious means,” Cormac said.