Sunday, 29 December 2019

"Clandestine", "Black", "White", "Grey" — What do these terms mean?

Clandestine, black, white and grey are terms often seen in books and articles about the use of radio in conflict, including in so-called influence operations and psychological warfare. The words are sometimes misunderstood and misused. This article attempts to explain their meanings and provide examples of each type.


Confusion can arise because there are two axes to consider:
  • The clandestine to non-clandestine axis (which refers to location)
  • The black to white axis, including shades of grey (which refers to content)

Clandestine or not?

"Clandestine broadcasting is defined as that which does not admit to, or attempts to mislead listeners about, the origin of transmission" 
The Soviet Foreign Propaganda Apparatus, CIA research paper, April 1986 (declassified in 2011) 

"Clandestine sources... are those which do not specify their location, which specify an imprecise location (e.g. 'liberated territory') or which falsely claim to emanate from a particular location"
— BBC Monitoring's Editorial Guide (December 2000)

"No such thing as a precise definition exists"
— From chapter on Clandestine Radio in Radio Power: Propaganda and International Broadcasting by Julian Hale (1975)

Black, white and grey

The following definition can often be found (in varying wording):
White propaganda is that whose origin is clearly labeled and which has a transparent purpose. 
Grey propaganda is information of questionable origin that is never sourced and whose accuracy is doubtful. 
Black propaganda is information put out by an opposing government or institution and made to look as though it comes from a friendly source.
In short:
  • White – correctly sourced (truly says who it is speaking on behalf of)
  • Grey – not sourced (doesn't say who it is speaking on behalf of)
  • Black – wrongly sourced (falsely says it is speaking on behalf of someone)

An appendix to a British PWE (Political Warfare Executive) document of November 1943 said of the three types, in the particular circumstances that the PWE was using them in the Second World War:
Both Black and Grey stations differ from White in that: 
(i) They purport to be something which they are not. 
(ii) They can be disavowed by H.M.G. [His Majesty's Government].
The differences between Black and Grey stations are as follows:
Black. They depend as much upon cover as upon content and technique to achieve their object. Their disguise, both as to location and control, must be sufficiently plausible to deceive their audience.
Grey. Their disguise need only consist of a plausible cover that they are not under British control. They depend entirely on content and technique to achieve their object.
When it comes to applying the above framework to real-life examples it's not always easy to stick to the rigid definitions of white, grey and black.

I sometimes use grey to describe any degree of ambiguity. 


1. Clandestine and White: Many stations operated by insurgent/rebel/guerrilla groups in the post-Second World War heyday of clandestine broadcasting were in this category. They spoke openly and authentically on behalf of their sponsoring group but sought to conceal their physical location. 

The many examples included most of the large number of stations operated by rebel groups in Ethiopia and Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s such as Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea and Radio SPLA. The former was operated by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) from territory inside Eritrea that it had seized from forces of the Ethiopian government. The latter spoke on behalf of the Sudan People's Liberation Army using the facilities of the state radio service in neighbouring Ethiopia.

2. Clandestine and Grey: These also concealed their location. But in contrast to the first category above they were silent (or not fully explicit) about their sponsors. 

Examples: Al-Quds Palestinian Arab Radio and the Argentine station during the Falklands War, Liberty. 

Many of the numerous clandestine radio stations that targeted Iran and Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s were clandestine and various shades of grey (in some cases, dark grey to black). 

Among those aimed at Iraq, one interesting group used a very powerful mediumwave (AM) transmitter in either Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. This was first heard in 1993 carrying anti-Saddam material under a variety of fancy labels such as Radio Freedom (a.k.a. the News Centre of Free Iraq), Voice of Iraq (a.k.a. the Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation) and Voice of the Free People of Iraq. In 1994 the transmitter began carrying a truly black operation, Iraqi Army Radio, which targeted dissident members of the Iraqi armed forces with material that included coded personal messages. 

3. Clandestine and Black: Although many of PWE’s "Research Units" (the cover name by which their radio stations were known) in the Second World War were black, truly black outlets were in a minority in the post-war world  though there were still plenty of them.

Those that met such a definition included almost all of the many stations that beamed to China, such as Radio Spark (run by the CIA and then Taiwan) and Radio Ba Yi (operated by the USSR). 

Other clandestine+black stations from the Soviet bloc included Radio Vltava (at the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968  it operated from East Germany) and National Voice of Iran, which beamed into that country from Soviet Azerbaijan from the 1950s until the 1980s. 

There were also various Soviet-bloc clandestine radio operations – black, grey and white – targeting non-communist parts of Europe during the Cold War, including those aimed at France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Turkey.

From the other side of the Cold War divide, the Voice of the Khmer station that attempted to undermine the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s was also black as it did not disclose its US backing. Its clandestine status came from its claim to operate from "liberated" territory inside Cambodia when in fact it was based in neighbouring Thailand.

In the 1960s, East Germany aired black broadcasts to the West German Bundeswehr under the name Deutsche Soldatensender 935.

The anti-Mugabe Radio Truth of the 1980s also fell into the black category. It posed as a voice of disaffected Zimbabweans but was in reality entirely a creation of South Africa.

4. Partially Clandestine and Light Grey: Radio Atlantico del Sur did not identify its affiliation in its broadcasts and glossed over its location (though it gave a London address for listeners' letters), though elsewhere the British government acknowledged its sponsorship of the station. Its broadcasts were therefore a good example of the PWE belief (above) that grey outlets "depend entirely on content and technique to achieve their object". (Note that the Argentine equivalent in 1982, Liberty, was not acknowledged by its government and so belongs in the clandestine+grey category.

5. Non-Clandestine and White: Almost all traditional international shortwave broadcasters fell into this category: BBC, Radio Moscow, Voice of America, Radio Netherlands, etc.

The various rebel-run stations during the Libyan civil war in 2011 also operated openly.

The same went for the various Voice of Palestine stations operated by the PLO, broadcasting from the state broadcasting organisations of Arab countries.

6. Non-Clandestine and Grey: Radio Station Peace and Progress was a good example of this. It made no secret of broadcasting from Moscow, but claimed to be the “voice of Soviet public opinion” and to be run by various "public" organisations in the USSR. In reality, it was fully controlled by the Soviet government and aimed at supporting Soviet foreign policy objectives.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), could be described as non-clandestine but grey during the period (until 1971) when they were funded covertly by the CIA. 

Voice of the Coast, the British-run station in the Gulf in the 1960s, was a light shade of grey.

7. Non-Clandestine and Black: Radio Impacto, the anti-Sandinist station that broadcast to Nicaragua in the 1980s from neighbouring Costa Rica, posed as a standard commercial radio station based in San Jose (hence the non-clandestine status) but it is widely assumed that it was covertly funded and directed by the US authorities.


The few examples given above are just a tiny fraction of the many hundreds of clandestine, subversive, insurgent and dissident radio operations in the second half of the 20th century. Their classifications along the clandestine to non-clandestine and black to white axes are in all cases my own subjective judgments.

© 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Soviet "active measures" against China — the story of Radio Ba Yi

This is a companion article to one I wrote in September 2019 about various clandestine radio stations that targeted communist China between the 1960s and the 1980s and were presumed to have been operated first by the CIA and then by Taiwan. 

The article below looks at other subversive broadcasts to China, this time from the USSR. 

"Active measures"

A document circulated within Nato in 1981 looked at "active measures" carried out by the Soviet Union "to complement its traditional diplomacy and weaken governments which are not subservient to direction from Moscow". It said: 
The Soviets use the term “active measures” (aktivnyye meropriyatiya) to refer to operations intended to provoke a policy effect, as distinct from espionage and counterintelligence. Soviet “active measures” include: written or oral disinformation; efforts to control the media in foreign countries; use of foreign communist parties and front organizations; clandestine radio broadcasting; economic coercion; political influence operations. 
On clandestine broadcasting, the document said: 
Presently the Soviet Union operates two clandestine radio stations: the National Voice of Iran and Radio Ba Yi, which broadcast on a regular basis from the Soviet Union to Iran and China. Soviet sponsorship of these stations has never been publicly acknowledged by Moscow, and the stations represent themselves as organs of authentic local “progressive” forces. The broadcasts of both stations are illustrative of the use of “active measures” activities in support of Soviet foreign policy goals. 
(In addition to the two stations named, elsewhere in the Soviet bloc East Germany was at that time, 1981, providing facilities for two clandestine radios broadcasting to Turkey. In earlier years there had been other stations engaged in subversive "active measures" targeting Nato various countries and transmitting from East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.)

The document gave no further details of Radio Ba Yi, so here's my investigation into the station: 

Radio Ba Yi — one name, several translations

Radio Ba Yi (八一 电台  Ba Yi Diantai) was active between between 1979 and 1986. It was a fully "black" operation, seeking to hide completely its origin in the USSR. Its existence was never mentioned by the Soviet media. 

"Ba Yi" literally means "Eight One". It refers to 1st August, the official birthday (in 1927) of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

Radio Ba Yi is therefore referred to in various sources by its Chinese name, and as Radio Eight One, Radio 8.1, August First Radio and First August Radio

Start of broadcasts

Radio Ba Yi is an example of a clandestine broadcasting operation that began in reaction to a specific event. This was the Chinese invasion of Vietnam on 17 February 1979. 

The USSR was Vietnam's main political and military ally, and the launch of Radio Ba Yi was part of the Soviet response to the Chinese attack. 

Radio Ba Yi was first heard by radio monitors on 3 March, exactly a fortnight after the invasion. [1] 

The station's launch might have been hastily organised by the USSR after its Vietnamese ally was attacked, or there might already have been plans for such broadcasts just waiting to be implemented if and when the opportunity or necessity arose. 

Coordination with Vietnam?

While Moscow always kept silent about Radio Ba Yi, Hanoi did not. The state radio, Voice of Vietnam, reported on 10 March 1979 that Ba Yi had been heard the previous day and that it was operated by the PLA. [2] 

Voice of Vietnam also on subsequent occasions publicised Radio Ba Yi and quoted from it. 

Vietnam and the USSR may have coordinated over the launch. The Far Eastern Economic Review said in its edition of 4 May 1979: 
Since April 12, a monitoring station in Seoul has been picking up Mandarin language broadcasts believed to be originating from the Vladivostok area. But the broadcasters have pronounced Southeast Asian accents, leading to speculation that the Vietnamese may be cooperating with Soviets in operating the station, known as Ba Yi (August 1) Radio. 
Objectives and propaganda themes

In line with its "black" status, Radio Ba Yi posed as being run by the PLA as an underground outlet within China. It purported to speak on behalf of dissident members of the PLA. References to "our army" were frequent. 

The objective of the broadcasts was to stimulate dissent among members of the military and encourage ill feeling towards China's senior leadership. 

The New York Times reported in May 1984
The August First Radio and its companion stations try to sound patriotic, staunchly Communist, anti-Western and sympathetic to army gripes. They charge that Peking insulted the armed forces by giving the military last priority in the four modernizations, after industry, agriculture and science. 
Although it never declared its Soviet origins, Radio Ba Yi never contradicted official Soviet policies. It was strongly anti-American, also criticising US allies Japan and Taiwan. On occasions it called for improved Sino-Soviet relations. 

US analysts noted, however, that Ba Yi tried to avoid the appearance of close tactical coordination with official Soviet media. [3]

Targeting Deng Xiaoping 

A particular focus of the broadcasts was Deng Xiaoping, who emerged after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 to become China's paramount leader. 

Deng Xiaoping, pictured while visiting President Jimmy Carter in January 1979, shortly before Radio Ba Yi was launched. The station made Deng its primary target for criticism

Deng began the reforms that led to the China we see today. And it was Deng's reforms, which threatened many established officials, that were a particular target of Radio Ba Yi

The New York Times article quoted above noted what it called the radio's "anti-Deng campaign": 
The broadcasts also articulate the resentments of hard-liners who have had to yield to Mr Deng's policies. They have accused him of creating a personality cult and letting degenerate Western values into China. The broadcasts have also attacked the party consolidation drive to weed out leftists and criminals from the rank-and-file. 
Similarly, an earlier analysis of the station's output by the US State Department said Deng was "a primary target of criticism": 
Radio Ba Yi's commentaries have condemned Deng for usurping power, violating the principles of collective leadership, damaging the army by transferring military leaders for his own selfish ends, and selling out China's national interests to the United States and Japan... For example, a January 14, 1980, commentary following US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown's visit to China declared that Sino-US relations had embarked on a path that encroached on Chinese sovereignty, damaged national pride, and threatened national security. It accused Deng of deciding "all by himself" to allow the United States to install and operate, with US intelligence personnel, an electronic "spy network" that would allow the United States to collect "secret intelligence" on China's economy and national defense. The people who agreed to such demands, the commentary concluded, if they did not deliberately wish to turn China into a US military base, were "suffering from senile decay". [4]
Propaganda techniques

The following are extracts from Radio Ba Yi broadcasts in 1982 that illustrate some of the techniques used to convey the station's propaganda: 

Hinting at, and stimulating, grievances among Communist Party officials (broadcast on 2 May 1982): 
In the past few months, facts have proved that the principle of reorganising the cadre component, insisted on by Comrade Deng Xiaoping, is incorrect. The principle of consolidating the party and reorganising the cadre component has not only damaged the situation of stability and unity which had emerged, but also dampened the enthusiasm of the broad masses of cadres in carrying out their work. What is worse is that many cadres, who are not veteran senior cadres, have openly expressed their lack of confidence in the party Central Committee. In past years, many cadres worked assiduously and conscientiously without giving a thought to personal gain. However, they have now gone so far as to study the "science of relationship". They have become anxious about making job arrangements for their own children and preparations for their own retirement. This is partly due to the wrong workstyle of these cadres. But on the other hand, isn't it the typical realistic attitude held by cadres towards the party Central Committee and leading comrades of the central authorities? Many veteran cadres, in particular, have become more and more dissatisfied with individual leaders of the central authorities.
Driving a wedge between army commanders and political leaders (broadcast on 1 November 1982): 
Particularly since the end of the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of China [held in September 1982], some central leaders have again begun to transfer army leaders and purge army cadres. Moreover, they again treat army cadres with the tricks of those political movements, such as labelling people and using the big stick. They even use various excuses to remove army cadres from military command. What upsets the party cadres the most is that they are accused of being remnants of the Lin Biao clique. 
[Marshal Lin Biao died in a plane crash in 1971. The Chinese authorities said he had been attempting to flee the country after mounting an abortive coup against Chairman Mao.] 
Praise for the army, encouraging its resentment against the party leadership (broadcast on 4 November 1982): 
We can say that the army is second to none in contributing to the founding and construction of New China. However, over the past 30 years and more, many heroes and outstanding generals have been killed because of suspicion and jealousy. This reminds us of the ruthless first emperors of the Song and Ming Dynasties. High-ranking cadres such as Comrades Rao Shushi, Peng Dehuai and Huang Kecheng [see below] were brutally persecuted. Every few years, large numbers of marshals, ministers of national defence and leaders of various departments of the armed forces have been removed and replaced. Instead of improving, the situation actually worsened after the smashing of the Gang of Four [in October 1976]. 
[Rao Shushi was a senior communist leader, jailed in 1955. Peng Dehuai was a pro-Soviet defence minister, sacked in 1959. Huang Kecheng was an ally of Peng Dehuai.] 
Transmission techniques

Radio Ba Yi made a series of brief transmissions (sometimes as short as four minutes) each evening from 8 p.m. (Chinese time). The same tape was repeated several times in each evening's transmission. The number and duration of the transmissions varied from day to day. 

Initially, the exact transmission times varied, though later in 1979 they settled down to start on the hour and half-hour. 

From April 1981 the transmissions were made at 27 and 57 minutes past every hour during the evening. 

The brevity of the transmissions lent credibility to the idea that this was an underground station forced to keep its transmissions short to avoid detection by the Chinese authorities.

The station had two announcers. It seems that they sometimes took their annual leave at the same time, as the station was absent from the airwaves for a month or more in the summers of 1981, 1982 and 1985. Thus the Soviet habit, which persists in Russia today, of government activity coming to a halt in August, also affected its "active measures". 

(A CIA report, however, suggested that the interruption to broadcasts in the summer of 1985 was for political reasons as it coincided with "a period when negative commentary on the PRC in the Soviet media was substantially reduced".)

Transmission frequency: Throughout its life, Radio Ba Yi used a single shortwave frequency, 12120 kHz.

Evidence of Soviet origin

Direction-finding indicated that the transmitter was located in the Soviet Far East, possibly the Vladivostok area.

On 13 October 1982, presumably because of a switching error, the transmitter on Radio Ba Yi's frequency was heard at the relevant times relaying Soviet domestic radio's entertainment service Mayak.

End of broadcasts 

Radio Ba Yi was last heard in December 1986, a time when Moscow-Beijing relations were improving.

Another Soviet outlet - Red Flag Broadcasting Station

Another Soviet-operated station, Red Flag Broadcasting Station (红旗 广播电台  Hongqi Guangbo Diantai), was first heard in September 1971 and then rather intermittently over the next 15 years. It was inactive for much of 1974, for a time in 1977-78, and again in mid-1981, after which it returned with a stronger signal. 

Like Radio Ba Yi, it disappeared for good in late 1986. 

Red Flag was notable for broadcasting on the mediumwave (AM) band (on 995 kHz) rather than shortwave, which was the waveband used by nearly all other clandestine broadcasts to China. 

Like Ba Yi, it aired short transmissions (around 10 minutes) during the evening. 

Its transmissions were confirmed by direction-finding to originate from the Soviet Far East, possibly the Khabarovsk area. In 1988, a Japanese radio enthusiast recognised one of the presenters of the Chinese service of the Moscow-based Radio Station Peace and Progress as having previously been an announcer on the Red Flag Broadcasting Station

The Peace and Progress station was itself a "light-grey" example of Soviet "active measures". It was not a clandestine operation, as it routinely announced itself as "the voice of Soviet public opinion", but its broadcasts were more outspoken than those of the "official" Soviet external radio services.

Notes and sources

[1] The date of first reception is given in a detailed report on clandestine broadcasting to China by the Japan-based Asian Broadcasting Institute (ABI). Other information from that report has been used in this article. 

[2] As reported at the time by BBC Monitoring (whose archives have also supplied other details for this article). 

[3] and [4] Foreign Affairs Note (Communist Clandestine Broadcasting) issued by the US State Department in December 1982. 

© 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

An Oriental PsyOps Mystery — the story of Radio Spark

If you enjoy reading this article, you may also be interested in another on Soviet "active measures" against China — the story of Radio Ba Yi. 

The self-deception of an intelligence organisation by counterfeit material deliberately faked by its own staff or agents always makes for an intriguing story.

In fiction, such deceptions are the basis of Graham Greene's comic novel Our Man in Havana and John le Carré's The Tailor of Panama.

My story below is, however, not fictional.

Cover of British paperback edition of the book that broke the secret of CIA's psyops during China's Cultural Revolution. The CIA obtained a court order to redact more than a page worth of the six pages devoted to the subject, likely containing key operational details, before publication

The Cultural Revolution and the CIA

The story begins in May 1966 with the start of the Cultural Revolution in China.

Detecting signs of resistance to the revolution and its Red Guards, particularly in southern China, the CIA sought to encourage such opposition through the distribution of printed matter by balloons launched from Taiwan.

The balloons carried bogus leaflets, pamphlets and newspapers purporting to be from counterrevolutionary groups within China. In fact, they were written by CIA propagandists.

The story is taken up by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks in their 1974 book The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence [1]: 
Almost immediately after it began, the balloon project was a success. The CIA's China watchers soon saw evidence of increased resistance to the Red Guards in the southern provinces... Within weeks, refugees and travellers from the mainland began arriving in Hong Kong with copies of the leaflets and pamphlets that the agency's propagandists had manufactured – a clear indication of the credence being given [to] the false literature by the Chinese masses.
 Encouraged by this success, the CIA looked for ways to expand its propaganda operation: 
A decision was therefore made to install on Taiwan a pair of clandestine radio transmitters which would broadcast propaganda – and disinformation – of the same nature as that disseminated by the balloon drops. If the Chinese people accepted the radio broadcasts as genuine, the CIA reasoned, then they might be convinced that the countermovement to the Cultural Revolution was gaining strength and perhaps think that the time had come to resist the Red Guards and their supporters still more openly. 
The left hand and the right hand

The CIA's radio stations in Taiwan duly began their bogus broadcasts. But a problem arose.

The part of the CIA (the Directorate of Plans) that was running the secret balloon drops and black radio transmissions to China did not inform the separate CIA division (the Directorate of Intelligence) that was, as its name suggests, collecting and analysing information about what was happening inside China. [2]

Among the Intelligence Directorate's subdivisions was one responsible for monitoring foreign radio stations: the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS).

FBIS's daily reports on the content of public radio broadcasts from and to China were circulated within the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon, and to others both inside and outside the US government.

Marchetti and Marks continue the story: 
Even though the FBIS editors are members of the CIA's Intelligence Directorate, the operators in the Clandestine Services are reluctant to reveal their propaganda operations to them. As a result, for its Far East daily report the FBIS frequently monitored and distributed the texts of programs actually originating from the agency's secret stations on Taiwan.
"Highly successful" CIA radio operation

In short, FBIS was unaware of the provenance of the CIA's broadcasts, and published transcripts of them in the belief that they had been aired by genuine dissident stations inside China. Marchetti and Marks noted: 
CIA operators seemed untroubled by this development and the accompanying fact that the agency's own China analysts back at headquarters in Washington (along with their colleagues in the State and Defence Departments) were being somewhat misled. Nor did they appear to mind that unwitting scholars and newsmen were publishing articles based to some extent on the phony information being reported by the FBIS [...]
Communist China was an enemy, and the writings of recognised journalists and professors publicising its state of near collapse and potential rebellion helped to discredit Peking in the eyes of the world  which was after all in keeping with the CIA's interpretation of American foreign policy at the time. 
The CIA's secret radios therefore proved to be highly successful. 
What were the stations in question?

The identity of the CIA's radio stations (though not their origin) was revealed as early as January 1967 by the respected Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

In a dispatch from Hong Kong it said that two pro-communist but anti-Mao clandestine stations, Spark (火花  Huohua) and Voice of the Liberation Army (解放之声  Jiefangjun zhi Sheng), had been heard since the middle of the previous month.

Such a start of broadcasts in December 1966 fits well with the narrative by Marchetti and Marks.

Asahi Shimbun noted speculation by China watchers that the two stations originated from mainland China. The ruse by their CIA operators – to pose as genuine underground radios broadcasting from within the People's Republic – had therefore been successful.

More than a year later the deception was continuing to be successful. In July 1968 the New York Times said in an article on the Voice of the Liberation Army's broadcasts: 
It is a mark of the turmoil in China that the broadcasts have commanded the attention of political analysts and led to speculation that a clandestine station may be operating there.
In these early years the two stations made several short broadcasts (just five to 10 minutes) each day on shortwave starting in the late afternoon, Chinese time, and then at intervals throughout the evening. The brevity of the programmes lent credibility to the idea that these were underground stations forced to keep their transmissions short to avoid detection by the Chinese authorities.

In late 1968 a third station thought to be part of the "Radio Spark group", calling itself Contingent of Proletarian Fighters (斗士  Wuchanzhe Zhandoushi), was heard. (Between May 1971 and April 1974, it would simply call itself Fighters.)

Handover to Taiwan?

After Richard Nixon made his ground-breaking visit to China in February 1972, all three stations became inactive, possibly as part of Washington's moves to improve relations with the Chinese.

Sheila O'Brien of the University of Michigan says in a chapter of Clandestine Broadcasting, published in 1987, that the CIA may have handed over its Chinese black broadcasting operations to Taiwan's own intelligence services at some time between 1972 and 1978. [3]

According to a prominent US writer on shortwave broadcasting, Lawrence (Larry) E. Magne, the Fighters and Liberation Army stations disappeared in June 1972, reappeared briefly later that year and then began new phase of broadcasting, in conjunction with Sparks, in April 1974. (This information is from a global survey by Magne, "Clandestine Broadcasting 1975", in the 1976 edition of the annual World Radio TV Handbook.)

An alternative theory

The interruption in 1972 and the 1974 relaunch reported by Magne could be the period identified by O'Brien as when the stations of the "Radio Spark group" were transferred from CIA to Taiwanese control after Nixon's visit.

However, Magne says they were under Soviet control, and had been so ever since the original launch in 1966.

Magne's labelling of the stations as originating in the USSR is at odds with several pieces of evidence that point to the CIA/Taiwanese connection, although this was not the first time that he had made such a claim of Soviet backing.

In the 1973 edition of How to Listen to the World, Magne said Radio Spark was operated by the KGB and staffed by Chinese exiles associated with the so-called "28 Bolsheviks" faction (a group of Chinese who had studied in Moscow in the 1920s and 1930s), although he gave no source for that information.

Questions of provenance

Magne's assertion was repeated in Julian Hale's 1975 book Radio Power, which became a standard work on international broadcasting and radio propaganda. Hale also said in relation to Sparks:
A similar operation, sharing transmission facilities with Sparks, calls itself Radio of the Chinese People's Communist Party, thus rubbing in their refusal to identify Mao Tse-tung's clique and his less-than-authentic party with the true followers of Marxism-Leninism.
Evidence of the provenance of Radio of the Chinese People's Communist Party (中国共 广播台  Zhongguo Gongchangdang Guangbo Diantai), which was heard between 1968 and 1971, is scant. It made transmissions of just 10 minutes in length, like the outlets of the Spark group, and like them favoured transmission times in the late afternoon and evening. It also used similar slogans to those of Voice of the Liberation Army (one of the Spark group), and like that station used two separate frequencies to carry the same programme, though not synchronously.

However, a detailed report on clandestine broadcasting to China by the Japan-based Asian Broadcasting Institute (ABI) noted evidence that the Communist Party station was not in the Radio Spark group but was part of a separate, but also Taiwan-sponsored, group of outlets.

Known Soviet clandestine broadcasts to China 

While I disagree with the claims by Magne and Hale that the Radio Spark group of stations came from the USSR, there were undoubtedly other clandestine radios targeting China that were Soviet in origin notably one calling itself Radio Ba Yi (八一   Ba Yi Diantai).

Bay Yi literally means Eight One and is a reference to 1 August, China's Army Day. 

Radio Ba Yi was launched during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War (in which the USSR backed Vietnam) and was last heard in late 1986 when Moscow-Beijing relations were improving.

Another Soviet-operated station, Red Flag (  Hongqi), was first heard in 1971 and then rather intermittently. Like Radio Eight One, it disappeared in late 1986. There was ample evidence that both transmitted from the USSR. Red Flag was notable for broadcasting on the mediumwave (AM) band rather than shortwave.

Although I disagree with Magne about the origin of the Radio Spark group, the description in his 1976 article of the modus operandi of the Radio Spark group is valid, whatever their provenance:
A variety of techniques besides aired statements is used to create the impression that there are rebel army units "on the run" within China itself. The transmissions are brief and often erratic, with station names and schedules changing often enough to create a guerrilla flavour.
Similarly, whatever my doubts about Julian Hale's attribution of Spark and the Communist Party station to a Soviet origin, his book Radio Power is an excellent study of the world of international shortwave radio in its heyday. 

More outlets

In 1978, a fourth station of the Radio Spark group was heard, calling itself October Storm (十月暴  Shiyue Fengbao).

Radio Spark targeted a youth audience, while Contingent of Proletarian Fighters and Voice of the Liberation Army were aimed at workers and members of the armed forces respectively.

Reporting the operations of the Radio Spark group, the New York Times said in May 1984 that "some references to Nationalist ideology led to speculation that they come from Taiwan".

Another station that may have been associated with the Radio Spark group was a fake version of China's main state radio network, the Central People's Broadcasting Station. [4]

This phony CPBS was certainly in operation by May 1974 and a similar station had been heard in February 1972. It operated on frequencies close to that of the genuine station, and played recordings of the latter, interspersed with bogus commentaries.

All five of the above stations continued into the 1980s. BBC Monitoring reported in January 1984 that only one of the four members of the Radio Spark group was heard on any given day. The first 10-minute transmission of the day was heard at 1700 Chinese local time and was then repeated up to seven further times over the course of the next two and a half hours.

The fifth station, the impostor version of the Central People's Broadcasting Station was reported by BBC Monitoring to have been heard again in May 1987 after a break since 1985, airing two daily transmissions of around 30 minutes each at 1900 and 2100 Chinese times.

From land or sea?

Were the clandestine broadcasts from a ship in the Taiwan Strait?
Map © CNN

In 1984-1985, various Western publications reported that Radio Spark and its sister stations were broadcasting from a ship in waters off China. The Los Angeles Times said in May 1984 that Western monitors believed the ship was in the South China Sea. 

The same suggestion was reported by Jane's Defence Weekly in July and October 1985, while Asiaweek said in April 1985 that the transmitting ship was in the East China Sea (Taiwan lies between the East China Sea and the South China Sea).

As early as 1970, David W. Conde had said in his book CIA: Core of the Cancer that in the summer of 1966 a fleet of pirate ships had been deployed by the CIA off the Chinese coast in a black propaganda campaign intended to cause China to collapse from within. (Though note that Marchetti and Marks said that the CIA's transmitters were installed "on Taiwan", rather than on a ship.)

Further support for the idea of the broadcasts coming from a ship came from an observation in 1982 by a member of the Asian Broadcasting Institute who noted that whenever a typhoon appeared in the Taiwan Strait, broadcasts of the stations of the Radio Spark group appeared to be suspended.

The ABI member also used direction-finding equipment of Japan's public service broadcaster NHK to track the Radio Spark group, with results that were consistent with the signals coming from waters off Taiwan.

The ABI's observation does not, however, necessarily mean that the Radio Spark group was using a shipborne transmitter. Land-based transmitters in Taiwan might also have had to shut down during typhoons, for example to lower their transmitting aerials.

End of the broadcasts

Contingent of Proletarian Fighters was last heard in 1984, Radio Spark in 1985, while the Voice of the Liberation Army, October Storm Broadcasting Station and the phony Central People's Broadcasting Station went silent in 1989.

Notes and sources

[1] Victor Marchetti was a member of the CIA between 1955 and 1969. For the last three years of his service (i.e. covering the early period of the Cultural Revolution in China) he worked in the office of the CIA director. John D. Marks joined the US State Department in 1966, resigning in 1970 after the US invasion of Cambodia.

[2] After 1973, the Directorate of Plans was known as the Directorate of Operations. Marchetti and Marks say that within the CIA the directorate was generally referred to as the "Clandestine Services".

[3] O'Brien's comments are quoted in the report by the Asian Broadcasting Institute (ABI) mentioned elsewhere. I have drawn extensively on the ABI's report in writing this article.

[4] Although its Chinese name (中央人民广播  Zhongyang Renmin Guangbo Diantai) is unchanged, Beijing now refers to the Central People's Broadcasting Station in English as China National Radio.

© 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.

Monday, 2 September 2019

80 years of BBC Monitoring — how it started

BBC Monitoring – originally the BBC Monitoring Service – celebrated its 80th anniversary last month. The article below describes the events that led to the service’s birth on 26 August 1939.

The Golden Gates at the entrance to Wood Norton on the cover of Assigned to Listen

1920s: The Keston and Tatsfield receiving stations

The earliest documented reception of a foreign broadcast for use in BBC programmes was in December 1923 when KDKA radio in Pittsburgh was picked up by a BBC engineer at Biggin Hill aerodrome, south of London, and relayed to the BBC's own listeners. 

From 1925, the BBC operated signals-receiving stations, first at Keston in Kent (now in the London Borough of Bromley) and then, from 1929, at Tatsfield on the North Downs in Surrey to the south of London. 

The Keston and Tatsfield stations measured the technical characteristics of BBC and foreign transmitters, and picked up foreign broadcasts, such as concerts, to be relayed in BBC programmes. 

They were not, however, tasked in those early days with monitoring foreign radio stations to gather news or report on their political output.

1930s: Early monitoring efforts by the Foreign Office

The first official British efforts at monitoring foreign broadcasts for news or intelligence purposes were done not by the BBC but the Foreign Office, following Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. Apparently, only English broadcasts were listened to at that stage.

According to the BBC’s official historian, Asa Briggs:
The Foreign Office gave little sustained support to this venture, which went through a further phase of development at the time of the abdication crisis [in 1936], when Whitehall was especially interested in knowing what American stations were saying about the King and Mrs Simpson.
After these limited efforts, in the late summer of 1937 the Foreign Office turned to a target in which Briggs says they were "genuinely interested", namely broadcasts in Arabic from Italy. The FO recruited an Arabist, Sigmar Hillelson, from the Sudan Civil Service for this work. 

Hillelson was later taken on by the BBC to do Arabic monitoring, before becoming head of the BBC’s broadcasts to the Near East. 

The BBC takes an interest

That same summer the Foreign Office began its monitoring efforts in Arabic, two BBC officials (Lionel Fielden and Felix Greene) wrote critical reports on the Corporation's overseas activities, calling for them to be improved in both quantity and quality. 

In his July 1937 report, Greene [1] urged the creation of a monitoring service: 
To know immediately and precisely what is being said by Rome and Germany to our empire and colonial listeners will become of immediate importance. 
The BBC starts some monitoring in 1938

In January 1938, the BBC began broadcasting in Arabic, its first service in a foreign language. (The Empire Service had started in 1932 but it was only in English.) 

Staff of the new service took over from the Foreign Office the monitoring of Arabic broadcasts from other stations. 

Similarly, when the BBC's Latin America service (in both Spanish and Portuguese) began in March 1938 its staff also monitored relevant foreign broadcasts. 

In the case of both the Arabic and Latin America services, BBC staff in those teams had to do this monitoring work when time could be spared from their broadcasting duties. 

By June 1938, the BBC was also monitoring English broadcasts from Paris, Berlin, Rome, Prague, New York, Pittsburgh and Tokyo. Signals were picked up at the Tatsfield Receiving Station and fed to an office on the third floor of Broadcasting House in London to be listened to by shorthand typists. 

Monitoring work also took place at Tatsfield itself by staff from the BBC's Overseas Intelligence Department (which had been formed in December 1937). 

After the BBC began a German service, one of its editors, Leonard Miall, did his own monitoring at Broadcasting House of Germany’s shortwave station at Zeesen. 

A monitoring pioneer

Meanwhile, David Bowman, a member of the BBC Latin America service with experience of monitoring, advised the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) on their own monitoring project, which involved listening to and analysing German and Italian domestic radio. 

Bowman, who was both a talented linguist (Spanish, Portuguese and French) and a shortwave radio enthusiast, would remain a member of BBC Monitoring for over 40 years, including tours of duty at its listening posts in central and east Africa. One of his last assignments was using his Spanish language skills to cover the 1982 Falklands War.

Clouds of war

In early 1939, with the international situation deteriorating, the BBC began considering how its limited monitoring efforts could be expanded. 

One idea was for the establishment of a number of "monitoring centres", along the lines of the station at Tatsfield, in various locations.

Another suggestion was that equipment be installed in the homes of BBC staff so that they could listen there.

A more ambitious proposal crystallised in April 1939, the month that Italy invaded Albania. The previous month, Germany had invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia. 

Rather than piecemeal operations, the BBC proposed that monitoring work be consolidated into a single dedicated unit with its own staff.

The government (in the form of the embryonic Ministry of Information) agreed in principle with the BBC's proposal. But the ministry queried the size and scope of the suggested Monitoring Service, its cost and who should pay for it – the BBC or the government. 

Matters were not helped by the fact that the Ministry of Information (MoI) was itself still only in a planning stage. It would not be launched formally until September 1939.

The Man from the Ministry

The MoI's discussions with the BBC were led by the embryonic ministry's Deputy Director-General, A.P. Waterfield, who is remembered by history, if at all, as the civil servant behind the Keep Calm and Carry On poster (which was never displayed during the war). Unfortunately, as Asa Briggs described, Waterfield knew nothing about broadcasting, and was ignorant as to what the BBC would need to do in wartime. 

For example, Waterfield queried whether it was really necessary, as the BBC insisted, that monitoring operations take place around the clock. 

As one BBC official put it:
We ourselves are planning [in case of war] what is virtually a 24 hour programme for both Home and Overseas. Should we not presume that other countries will take similar action?
The BBC buys Wood Norton

While these difficult negotiations with the government continued, the BBC had already found a home for the new Monitoring Service. 

In late 1938 and early 1939, the Director of BBC Office Accommodation, Ralph Wade, toured districts to the north and west of London in search of suitable properties. 

He was looking for "somewhere in the country" that could accommodate not just Monitoring, but the many other BBC departments that would be evacuated from London in the event of war. 

Wade and two colleagues, later rumoured to have posed as a trio of Midlands industrialists, eventually decided upon Wood Norton Hall, near Evesham in Worcestershire, which had once been the home of the Duke of Orléans, pretender to the French throne. 

Evesham is about 100 miles west-northwest of London.

The estate agent described the property as follows:
Wood Norton, Worcestershire. Evesham 2 miles. A magnificently appointed mansion, reconstructed by the Duc d’Orléans about 40 years ago at cost of £40,000. 40 acres. 9 reception rooms. 30 bedrooms. 7 bathrooms. Swimming pool. The construction is of red brick with stone dressings in the French style, and contains vast quantities of oak panelling, parquet flooring and other fittings. There are two drives – the principal one entered through a pair of magnificent wrought iron gates from the Palace of Versailles. 
The estate agent was wrong about the gates. They came in fact from York House, Twickenham, where Louis Philippe Robert d’Orléans had been born in 1869.

The BBC signed a contract in March 1939 to buy Wood Norton for £10,000 and took possession shortly afterwards, with an Engineer-in Charge (W. Bruce Purslow) taking up his duties there on 10 April to begin equipping the new site for both broadcasting and monitoring operations. 

For monitoring, the BBC initially spent £810 on a wooden hut, six receivers and some simple aerials. The Ministry of Information declined to assist with the cost. 

Several wooden huts were eventually built in the grounds of Wood Norton
Preparations accelerate

After weeks of discussions in the spring and early summer of 1939, the Ministry of Information (which was still operating in "shadow" mode) eventually made a formal request that the BBC make arrangements to run a dedicated Monitoring Service in case of war. 

But there was still disagreement over funding. The MoI agreed to pay for the new service, but rejected the proposed budget. The BBC had estimated that it would cost £100,000 to run the service in its first year. 

The MoI initially provided just £24,0000, plus £4,000 for capital expenditure. Talks over money continued for months after the start of the war, with the MoI making piecemeal additional grants from time to time. By February 1940 these had totalled £90,000, not far short of the BBC's original estimate. 

Meanwhile, the government was pressing the BBC to provide more information from foreign broadcasts. To bridge the gap before Wood Norton became operational, Malcolm Frost, the head of the BBC's Overseas Intelligence Department (OID), arranged for receivers to be installed at the home of a member of OID's Spanish section, R.J. Baker, at Flackwell Heath, between High Wycombe and Beaconsfield. 

Other OID staff joined Baker at his home to do this improvised work. 

Recruitment of staff

With at least some funding guaranteed for the new Monitoring Service, in July and August 1939 the BBC began recruiting linguistic staff ("monitors", as they were becoming known). 

The new recruits were told that they would be based in "the West of England", but that their work would only start if war broke out or a national emergency was declared. 

The initial batch of 32 monitors were qualified between them in Afrikaans, Arabic, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. These were the seven foreign languages in which the BBC was broadcasting by then.

The Monitoring Service would also listen to English-language broadcasts, and many additional languages were added after it was launched. 

The last week of peace

Just as the recruitment of the first monitors was completed, there came the shattering news on 22 August that German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop would visit Moscow the next day. It seemed that the BBC's preparations were only just in time. 

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in the Kremlin during the night of 23-24 August. War was now certain, and the BBC moved to implement its plans. 

Events moved rapidly. On 24 August, the British parliament passed the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act. The same day, Ralph Wade – the BBC manager who earlier in the year had found Wood Norton for the Corporation – drove there with his secretary, a typist and £100 in cash for emergencies (the equivalent of around £6,000 today). 

One of the tasks of Wade and other BBC administrators who arrived from London was to arrange the billeting in private homes of the many BBC staff (both broadcasting and monitoring) who were about to descend on Evesham. 

Evesham was a largely agricultural community at the heart of one of England's main fruit-growing districts. When Wade arrived, the main concern of the town’s residents was preparing for its annual Gala in aid of the local hospital. 

Back in London, on 25 August the BBC sent telegrams and made phone calls to the newly recruited monitors telling them to report to Broadcasting House the following day to be taken to Evesham, or to make their own way to Worcestershire. 

One of those who received such a call was Anatol Goldberg. Russian-born Goldberg had passed the monitoring recruitment test in Spanish, by no means his strongest language. He thought the offer of an annual salary of £300, plus free accommodation and two meals a day, "absolutely magnificent". 

After the war, Goldberg would become the BBC's chief commentator on Eastern Europe and a household name in the USSR through his broadcasts on the BBC Russian service. 

Amid the preparations to start work at Wood Norton, the limited monitoring operations in London, Tatsfield and Flackwell Heath continued.

26 August 1939

On the morning of Saturday 26 August, a bus carrying staff of the newly formed BBC Monitoring Service set out from London for Evesham.

Those on the bus included Dr Gustaaf Renier, recruited from the Royal Institute of International Affairs and author of the book The English, Are They Human? 

They arrived to find Evesham under drizzle and en fête, enjoying its annual Gala. It was not the best day to sort everyone out with a billet in a local home. Locals received one guinea a week for hosting a billetee, who became known as "guinea pigs". 

The billeting fee was soon raised to two guineas a week (£2.10, equivalent to around £120 pounds today). Problems with billeting feature prominently in the reminiscences of wartime monitors. 

Transition to Wood Norton

Ironically, although 26 August 1939 is the official birthday of the BBC Monitoring Service, it's unlikely that any serious monitoring work took place at Wood Norton that day. 

However, the monitoring operations in London, Tatsfield and Flackwell Heath continued while Wood Norton became established. 

All the monitoring at that time was of public radio broadcasts on shortwave, mediumwave and longwave. The monitoring of news agencies by Morse, radioteletype and Hellschreiber came later. 

The first "Digest of Foreign Broadcasts" a nine-page document circulated to BBC and government departments, was dated 27-28 August 1939. 

In the early months of Monitoring's life, during the so-called Phoney War, Pathé newsreel cameras visited Wood Norton – described only as being "somewhere in England" – and made a lovely two-minute featureThe press was not invited back to Monitoring until after VE Day. 

One of the huts of Monitoring's "M Unit" at Wood Norton in February 1941
The separate "Y Unit" focused on specific intelligence targets
Sources and further reading

There’s no single comprehensive description of how the BBC Monitoring Service came to be formed (or, indeed, of its subsequent history), though as Brian Rotheray noted in a booklet to mark the service’s 70th anniversary, "more has been written about the Evesham period than any other". 

I’ve drawn on all of the sources listed below for my account. Even taken together, they still leave some gaps. For example, only the briefest descriptions of the Foreign Office’s monitoring work in 1935-37, and of the listening that took place at Flackwell Heath, have been published.

Similarly, the full details of the negotiations in the spring and early summer of 1939 between the BBC and the government remain unpublished.

Fortunately, between them the following sources combine top-down history based on official papers with the bottom-up view given in the recollections of those who were present.

Assigned to Listen by Olive Renier and Vladimir Rubinstein (1986). This book tells the story of Monitoring at Evesham between 1939 and 1943, when the service moved to Caversham Park. It is based on the recollections of Monitoring staff of the time and was inspired by a staff reunion in September 1979 to mark the 40th anniversary. Along with many interesting chapters – including an essay by Dr Lux Furtmüller on "Changing techniques of German home propaganda" and a vivid explanation by Rubinstein of the difficulties of monitoring Soviet broadcasts in the first months after the German invasion of June 1941  it includes a description of events leading up to August 1939, although these are personal accounts from individuals rather than a well-structured overview.

Such an overview is provided in BBC Monitoring Service, August 1939 – August 1979 by Ramon Silva. This 35-page unpublished history was written at the time of the 40th anniversary for the benefit of current and former staff. Silva had been a member of the service between 1939 and 1972, including as head of the Reception Department.

A third fruit of the 40th anniversary was Listening to War, an excellent hour-long Radio 4 documentary written by Norman Longmate, produced by Barbara Crowther, recorded in 1980 and broadcast in January 1981. It includes interviews with several of Monitoring’s pioneers, including David Bowman, Malcolm Frost, Richard D’Arcy Marriott, Anatol Goldberg, Vladimir (Vova) Rubinstein, Lorna Swire, Ray Barker, Ivan Bilibin, Sir Ernst Gombrich, Lord Weidenfeld, Molly Warren-Evans, Stephen Szego, Martin Sullivan, Karl Lehmann and Susan Temple.

Preparations for the launch of the Monitoring Service are described in the two relevant volumes of the official BBC history by Asa Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless (covering 1927-39) and The War of Words (looking at 1939-45), published in 1965 and 1970 respectively. Although the space given to Monitoring is necessarily limited in books that had to cover the complex story of the Corporation as a whole, Briggs’s histories are largely based on official documents (which are cited meticulously) and so complement the recollections of former staff.

Gerard Mansell’s 1982 history of the first 50 years of the BBC external broadcasting, Let Truth Be Told, also covers Monitoring. Although it adds only a little unique material on Monitoring's early days, I mention it here as it is an excellent history of the external services, with a particular emphasis on the 1930s and 40s.

Edward Pawley’s mammoth and comprehensive book BBC Engineering 1922-1972 is my constant companion when researching anything about the BBC’s first 50 years. It deals with much more than pure engineering (for example, it is a good record of the many buildings owned and used by the BBC across the country) and is crammed full of precise facts, figures and dates.


[1] Felix Greene was a cousin of Hugh Carleton Greene, who would run the BBC German service during the war and serve as BBC Director-General in the 1960s, and the novelist Graham Greene.

Author's note: Given the psyops theme of this blog, it can be noted that BBC Monitoring’s work has included coverage of such activity by foreign states and others, such as insurgent and militia groups. In addition, the service’s output has been used by those responsible for the UK’s own psyops efforts. The Political Warfare Executive (PWE) in the Second World War, the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (IRD) during the Cold War, and the operators of Radio Atlantico del Sur in 1982 all used BBC Monitoring material. 

© 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.