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.

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