The British government ran a secret propaganda campaign aimed at destabilizing the country’s enemies during the Cold War by inciting violence, supporting racial tensions and encouraging hatred toward Israel, according to newly declassified documents.
The documents, which were reported on by The Guardian, highlighted a “black propaganda” campaign from the mid-1950s to late 70s that mostly targeted African countries, the Middle East and parts of Asia with fake reports that were ultimately intended to spread anti-communist sentiment.
The term refers to the creation of false news reports meant to appear as if written by those the pieces were meant to discredit — in this case, foes of the Western alliance during the Cold War.
According to the documents, the extensive campaign attempted to turn Muslims against Moscow and occasionally used anti-Israel propaganda in order to appear authentic.
It was led by the UK’s Information Research Department (IRD), which was established after World War II as a response to Soviet propaganda targeting Britain and was coordinated with the CIA’s war propaganda operations.
Rory Cormac, an expert in the history of subversion and intelligence, told the Guardian the declassified papers were “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,” Cormac argued.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin as they sit on the patio of Livadia Palace, Yalta, Crimea, February 4, 1945. Initially hailed as a major success, the conference later came to be viewed by some as the moment that the US ceded too much influence to the Soviets and the trigger for the Cold War.
Cormac had stumbled upon the declassified documents when researching material for a book. His study of the documents constitutes the most extensive insight yet into the IRD’s disinformation operations to date, according to the report.
“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,” he said.
Cormac said a central tactic employed by the IRD was the forging of statements that appeared to be written by Soviet agencies, including Novosti, the Soviet state-run news agency.
The IRD forged 11 such statements between 1965-1972, the report said, including one that followed Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, highlighting Moscow’s anger at Egypt’s defeat despite the weapons and resources provided by the Soviets.
In another attempt to sow division between Moscow and its Arab allies in the Middle East, the British organization also created literature purporting to come from Muslim organizations that blamed Soviet Russia for the defeat.
“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,” read a statement issued by the IRD and signed by a fictional radical Islamist organization called the League of Believers.
A platoon of Israeli armored cars is seen moving through the southern Sinai, Egypt, during Israel’s invasion of the Sinai in the Six Day War, June 7, 1967. (AP Photo)
Other faked material accused Moscow of a lack of support for Palestinian armed nationalist groups, as opposed to China’s more outspoken backing, in an attempt to divide the two communist powers.
The IRD was shut down in 1977, but according to the report, the British government carried out similar disinformation operations for nearly another decade.
“The [new documents] are particularly significant as a precursor to more modern efforts of putting intelligence into the public domain,” Cormac said.