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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 21:52 GMT
US well versed in 'black arts'
US soldiers leave for duty in the Gulf
Propaganda was used during the Gulf War
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By Paul Reynolds
BBC world affairs correspondent
The Pentagon is reported by the New York Times to be setting up a secret unit to engage in propaganda as the United States develops President Bush's declared war on terror worldwide.

Already, the well-used quote from Winston Churchill is being deployed to justify such an effort: "In wartime, truth is so important that it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies."

Vietnam war anniversary celebrations
Nixon hid the extent of US invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War
That bodyguard was busy during World War II and had surprisingly lasting effects. Even long after the war, when I was at school, we believed that carrots gave one night vision, hence the success of British fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain.

Perhaps people still believe this of carrots.

But governments should also remember that the "black arts", as they are known in the trade, can backfire. You can lose your credibility.

Gulf War

A gadfly American journalist, IF Stone wrote at the height of the Cold War: "Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed."

The Americans are well versed in the "black arts".

The most famous case of recent years was the evidence given to a Congressional Committee in the run-up to the Gulf War.

Osama Bin Laden
Will Bin Laden be the next target of black propaganda?
A young Kuwaiti woman said that Iraqi soldiers had ripped babies from incubators after their invasion. The Committee was much moved.

It turned out that the young woman was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador and that there was no credible evidence for her claim.

That case showed the value of black propaganda - it is designed for the short term.

What mattered then was to mobilise American opinion behind military action.

'Yellow rain'

The truth of the claim (which could not anyway be checked one way or another, and which was a neat twist appreciated by those who examine this stuff) was a lesser issue.

Sometimes, the truth does emerge quite quickly and the propaganda fails.

The then US Secretary of State Alexander Haig came a cropper once when he claimed that the Soviet Union was dropping a deadly chemical he called "yellow rain" onto Afghanistan (yes, Afghanistan has featured in the propaganda war before), Laos and Cambodia.

MI5 logo
MI5 is believed to have forged a letter for propaganda purposes
The "yellow rain" had its own sting - it turned out to be droppings from bees.

Sometimes, the lie takes longer to emerge.


President Richard Nixon, for example, hid the extent of the American invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. And President Lyndon Johnson pretended that American warships had been attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify escalating the conflict.

But truth is a far stronger warrior when it is fresh on the battlefield and truth was very tired indeed by the time it had come out from behind these presidential blandishments.

Practitioners of the "black arts" had a wonderful time during the Cold War and the KGB was a grandmaster in this game.

It planted the story that the United States had unleashed the Aids virus on the Third World, especially Africa.

British involvement

It was a brilliant device and the claim is still echoed in parts of Africa to this day.

The KGB would have admired the folks who used the carrot as a bodyguard for radar.

Another KGB plant was to suggest that American tourists in far flung places were kidnappers who were after children to get their organs for transplants.

I recall that at least one unfortunate tourist was lynched by villagers in Guatemala who believed this.

Among the very best artists in this delicate dance are the British.

One of the most notorious coups dates from 1924, in the affair of the Zinoviev Letter. This contained instructions from Gregory Zinoviev, head of the Soviet Union's international department, to the British Communist Party calling for revolution.


"Armed warfare," it stated, "must be preceded by a struggle against the inclinations to compromise which are embedded in the majority of British workmen."

Nice to see that compromise was a well regarded virtue even then.

Since the British Government under the Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald had shortly before signed an agreement with the young Soviet Union, the "letter" did Mr MacDonald no good in the next election, which he lost.

It is now believed that the letter was forged by one agent in MI5 and leaked to the press by another.

It is regarded as one of the greats in a rather crowded field.

Britain was also fully engaged in propaganda during the Northern Ireland conflict. I remember an officer at army HQ at Lisburn who used to give reporters a blow by blow account of the deeds of more or less every alleged member of the IRA.

It was a such a stunning performance that one wondered how the IRA managed to be so active.

It was mostly propaganda, of course, designed presumably to show how the military was on top of events. Events actually proved otherwise.

The day after Bloody Sunday, the army claimed - and the BBC reported the claim - that four of those shot dead by the paratroops in Derry were on the "wanted list".

The problem was that the wanted list must have included practically every young nationalist in the province. It was only in later years that all the dead were finally declared to be have been "innocent". But the damage was done at the time.

Some of the best black propaganda attacks are on the personal attributes of the target. Hitler is to this day renowned for having less than his full complement of masculine equipment.

Scoffing at someone is often more effective than demonising them.

Maybe the new Pentagon unit will come up with something about Osama Bin Laden. Watch out for it.

See also:

13 Nov 01 | TV and Radio
The US media at war
16 Oct 01 | Media reports
Pro-US radio launched for Afghanistan
16 Oct 01 | Americas
The US war of minds
08 Oct 01 | South Asia
Propaganda war hots up
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