Sunday, 29 September 2019

An Oriental PsyOps Mystery – the story of Radio Spark

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 Eight One (八一   Ba Yi Diantai), a reference to China's Army Day, 1 August. 

Radio Eight One 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.

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