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The Everyday IRD: British Covert Information in the Early 1960s

March 21, 2019

The Information Research Department (IRD), the Foreign Office’s Cold War covert information agency, has been back in news this week as the latest release of material from the Public Records Office confirms the involvement of the IRD in the production and use of forgeries aimed at Soviet aligned fronts organizations.  This report provides some detail on an operation against the World Federation of Democratic Youth in 1963.

By coincidence I’ve been looking at a couple of pieces on the IRD in this era which really focus on the day to day to activities of the organization.  These are a top secret review of the IRD conducted by the former Permanent Under Secretary of the FO Lord Strang in 1963  that was been dug out of the archives and transcribed by pyswar.org.  The second is a PhD Thesis by Simon Collins on the IRD in the Middle East and Africa between 1956 and 1963.  Strang’s report is redacted and is very much a Whitehall focused document while Collin’s thesis actually gives a pretty strong sense of what IRD was doing.

The Strang report seems to have been motivated by concerns over whether an expansion of IRD was providing value for money. The agency had been authorized to appoint up to 24 field officers who  could be sent overseas.  Part of the background here is that the IRD was largely funded by the ‘secret vote’ that financed the intelligence services and wasn’t subject to the same level of financial stringency that affected the overt overseas information services of the FO, the British Council and the BBC.  Neither was it subject to the same staffing policies as the FO.*  There’s a similarity with situation in the US during the early Cold War where the Marshall Plan information activities and those of the CIA had more money and more freedom than those of the State Department.  Although Strang accepts the argument that the IRD should be maintained as a covert organization I also get a sense in that part of the importance of the IRD  in this era is because of the additional resource it brings to the overall information effort.

At this point the IRD is the largest department in the FO and is several times the size of the overt information departments.   Strang gives a figure of 288 whereas the total staff of the Information Policy Department, Information Executive Department and the Cultural Relations Department is 83.  The key to the difference is that IRD is producing its own content and has its own people in the field.  I would assume that information officers at overseas posts did not count as part of the IPD establishment somewhat reducing the discrepancy.

I think Collins gives a good sense of what is happening with the IRD at this point.  From 1955 the IRD is  tasked against Nasserite Arab Nationalism as well as Communism.  This continues to be a priority well after the Suez Crisis.  Egypt’s external communications are attacking the British position in Africa not just  conservative Arab regimes.  In the late 1950s Britain wants to rebuild diplomatic relations with Egypt while containing the Nasserite influence.  The result is Transmission X; a sort of asymmetrical rebuttal service to Egypt’s radio broadcasting.  Instead of a classic mid-20th century radio war with competing radio stations directly attacking each other – which might have undermined the goal of repairing diplomatic relations – Transmission X used near real-time reports on Cairo’s broadcasts from BBC Monitoring Service as a basis to produce materials: opinion pieces, scripts that could be rapidly circulated to posts and to their contacts in government and media in the Middle East and North Africa.  The initial concept was to undermine the credibility of the Egyptian broadcasts by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies. Collins sees some success with this activity.  But from an organizational point of view  the consequences are bigger.  IRD is no longer just producing background materials but is now also operating as a full time information service.  The content and scope of Transmission X expanded beyond the narrow agenda of countering Egyptian broadcasts to take in anti-Communist material and even non-political ‘projection of Britain’ fare.   Certainly one gets the impression from the two studies here that one of the consequences of the expanding IRD field presence was for it to be used to fill gaps in the official information services.

The idea that 1955-65 represents a ‘golden age’ for Western public diplomacies crops up  in discussions of the  France and the US as well as the UK.  In this era public diplomacies are expanding as colonial countries gain their independence, public diplomacies are also pressed into service to fill gaps in national media systems and commercial international news services.  From the mid-60s the costs of this start to become apparent, the Soviet and Chinese threats in Africa seem less immediate and gaps in media systems are being filled in so that the scope of these information activities can be scaled back.

The main point is that while the involvement of the IRD in black activities will always be of interest the bulk of what they were doing was much more mundane.  In making sense of British Cold War information activities the covert and the overt need to put into context.

*I’m wondering if the exemption from the normal staff regulations meant that there were more women in IRD. The field staff were carefully selected and included at least three women, at least two of whom had intelligence connections going back the Second World War.

References

Collins, Simon MW (2013). “Countering Communist and Nasserite Propaganda: The Foreign Office Information Research Department in the Middle East and Africa, 1954-1963.” PhD, University of Hertfordshire. https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/14327/04085529%20Collier%20Simon-%20Final%20PhD%20submission.pdf?sequence=1

Strang, Lord (1963). The Unavowable Information Services of Her Majesty’s Government Overseas. CAB 301/399. https://www.psywar.org/content/strangIRDreport.

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