The war against the IRA and the birth of fake news
The term was practically unknown 18 months ago, though is now seen as an existential threat to democracy. But the psyops technique was first used 40 years ago in Northern Ireland as the Army waged a disinformation offensive against the terrorists, writes Rory Cormac
Unattributable propaganda, conducted by both military psychological operations, or 'psyops', teams and the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), formed a key part of British activity in Northern Ireland.
Back in 1969, at the outbreak of the Troubles, the Army, which initially took the lead in this area, defined psyops as "the planned use of propaganda, or other means, in support of our military action, or presence, designed to influence to our advantage the opinions, emotions, attitudes and behaviour of enemy, neutral and friendly groups".
Such activity covered 'black', 'white' and 'grey' propaganda, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of information work was overt public relations activity. Covert propaganda formed a smaller-scale and complementary activity, used when attribution would undermine credibility.
By July 1970, the Army wanted to create a dedicated psyops unit in Northern Ireland. In October, it sent a lieutenant colonel to its headquarters at Lisburn to run an Information Liaison Department. This achieved little and, in September 1971, a new Information Policy Unit, headed by Colonel Maurice Tugwell, replaced it.
Through holding unattributable briefings with journalists, Tugwell sought to wage a propaganda war. Although those working in Lisburn deny any involvement in black operations, one retired colonel previously said: "If one wanted to convey a message to a particular group, you can make it appear as if it was coming from somebody else".
At the same time, psyops specialists sent Army personnel onto the streets to distribute leaflets while disguised in Beatles wigs.
Civilian propagandists also targeted Northern Ireland. In fact, IRD staff were particularly keen to find a role in the conflict, given that the receding communist threat had placed their jobs under threat. Whitehall managers slashed the IRD's budget by more than half in 1971, leaving those who survived the axe anxious to safeguard their careers.
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From Downing Street, Prime Minister Edward Heath also called for unattributable propaganda. He had been fully briefed that officials, including Norman Reddaway, now overseeing all cultural and information work at the Foreign Office, were working "overtly and covertly to blacken the IRA" by placing propaganda into the British Press.
Stewart Crawford, chairman of the Joint Action Committee and overseeing intelligence and security work at the Foreign Office, argued in favour of applying IRD techniques, including, in his words, "covert propaganda" to Northern Ireland. He sought to "expose the extremists, discredit their methods and isolate them, and to counter their efforts by damping-down inter-communal tensions".
Echoing a long-held British propaganda theme, propaganda would "exploit any tendencies to disagreement and rivalry among the extremist groups".
By August 1972, with the propaganda war being lost in the aftermath of internment without trial and the killing of unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday, Heath piled on more pressure.
He insisted that a massive propaganda counter-attack was needed to refute IRA allegations and discredit the terrorists, and that experienced staff should be drafted in from wherever possible to achieve this. He even advocated bribery, "using money freely" to gain information and influence people. Ministers, civil servants and the military all pressed for a counter-propaganda offensive.
That the British state was subverting its own people raised serious problems. Hugh Mooney, the IRD's man on the ground, recognised that "the department saw Northern Ireland as a poisoned chalice. It promised salvation, but would probably end in disaster".
Propaganda and manipulation at home, however, was nothing new. As early as December 1951, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) had suggested using satire to ridicule communism, sparking a conversation with Norman Brook, as Cabinet Secretary, about whether Noel Coward was a suitably reliable comedian to spearhead the new campaign.
In the same year, the IRD created a small home desk, or English section, which focused on subversion and industry and remained in place into the 1970s. As part of the so-called cultural Cold War, the IRD bolstered purportedly independent domestic writers and presses through moderate trade unions, the BBC, several daily newspapers and the non-communist Left.
Beyond the Cold War, in 1970, Heath's drive for British membership of the European Economic Community required discreet support. Stepping up, the IRD planted material in the Press and drafted letters for MPs to send to newspapers. As Thomas Barker, the head of the IRD, explained, in the context of Northern Ireland, the IRD "have had for many years a responsibility both in the home and overseas fields".
Nonetheless, the Government attempted to circumvent potential criticism about covert propaganda in Northern Ireland in three ways. First, officials portrayed the IRA as a subversive organisation, thereby allowing them to fall within the IRD's recently broadened remit. Second, they portrayed nationalists as foreign, mainly from Ireland, but also linked to the Vatican. Third, IRD appointments had to take place under deep cover, especially because the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, James Chichester-Clark, had resisted propaganda operations against his own people.
Accordingly, IRD officers took on Home Office cover. From 1971, it placed anti-IRA material in the British and foreign Press. As Hugh Mooney reported to London, the "darker side" of propaganda had "not been neglected."
Examples of unattributable propaganda in Northern Ireland are endless. They range from stories of IRA embezzlement and fraud to Soviet shipments of rocket-launchers into Ireland; from spreading rumours that making explosives caused cancer to rumours that explosives hidden in women's clothing risked being ignited by friction in their underwear.
Propaganda also accused terrorists of dabbling in witchcraft and black magic, with the British even going as far as planting black altars and placing upside-down crucifixes in parts of Belfast.
Colin Wallace, an Army intelligence officer, claimed: "We used to collect chicken blood from the cookhouse at the Army barracks and put that on the altars, so it looked like there had been a sacrifice, or something".
Other allegations include the smearing of members of parliament seen as having unhelpful views on Northern Ireland.
One journalist covering the Troubles remembers how "in our various newsrooms, we were being overwhelmed by a blizzard of facts and atrocities, lies and propaganda, from all sides, and it was simply impossible to tell truth from fantasy, fact from fiction".
Recently declassified files reveal remarkable IRD activities. One involved countering terrorist use of bazookas. They were difficult to handle and the IRA wondered why the shells had not been exploding when, in fact, the safety cap was still on. British propagandists deliberately concealed this explanation and, instead, issued a dummy Army order stating that such shells should be tested electronically. This, Mooney hoped, "would have the effect of exploding the shell in the tester's hands".
Similarly, two young nationalists died while making a bomb during the coldest night of the year. The British swiftly issued misinformation saying that gelignite reacts to changes in temperature. This had the desired effect when the IRA quickly disposed of what they thought were suspect stocks against soft targets.
Covert propaganda emphasised familiar themes. It portrayed the IRA as having links to international terrorism, especially Libya and the Gaddafi regime, as well as being part of a broader international communist movement. Both themes, but especially the latter, were reminiscent of attempts to discredit insurgents during the wars of decolonisation.
Propaganda also exploited divisions and fostered rivalry among targets. Mooney set the Provisional IRA against the Official IRA by suggesting that the latter were "seriously considering assassinating the dozen or so leading Provisionals in Belfast". He spread further rumours that the Provisionals had betrayed the Officials in the aftermath of internment.
Finally, propaganda was intended to undermine the IRA in the eyes of ordinary people and portray them as ruthless killers, divorced from the concerns of the local community they were supposed to represent. The British authorities sought to expose what they saw as the IRA's "total ruthlessness and disregard for the lives and property of either section of the community".
Many propaganda operations, however, were outlandish and, ultimately, backfired. British intelligence lacked a nuanced understanding of why people joined paramilitary groups in the first place, while black propaganda was particularly difficult to run in Northern Ireland, where nothing remained secret for long.
Gradually, the British realised that Northern Ireland could not be treated as a mere extension of colonial counter-insurgency strategy, and the Army handed responsibility over to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the mid-1970s. Even before then, however, black propaganda was on the decline, as locals referred to Lisburn as the "Lisburn lie machine".
In 1973, Britain removed IRD staff altogether, although they continued to take a keen interest from London. Shortly afterwards, the Army's Information Policy Unit was closed. That is not to say that unattributable - even black - propaganda ended.
In late 1974, the Government continued to press for a determined information policy, including "unattributable briefings to Press and 'leaders of opinion'", alongside "the creation of (apparently) independent organisations, which will support moderate policies, peace festivals and other uncommitted groupings".
Moreover, MI5 later called for a "sustained and structured propaganda war" to disrupt terrorist recruitment and encourage defections. Although this did not happen in the way MI5 hoped, the service did engage in a limited propaganda initiative in the 1980s against Provisional IRA leaders, some of which was conducted without proper authorisation.
MI5 propaganda set out to discredit terrorists publicly, leaving the head of its Operational Section with misgivings and warning such activity should not include anything that "might be taken as incitement" to murder.
Similarly, the head of MI5's agent-running section pointed out the obligation not to exacerbate the sectarian tension. Despite this, he described the 1980s campaign as having been both "talented and clearly successful".
In truth, MI5 initiatives lacked focus and control. They ended up targeting individuals who were not members of terrorist organisations but prominent figures in the broader nationalist and republican community. This led to allegations of collusion, or incitement, when loyalist paramilitaries murdered some of these people. The operation designed to unnerve and expose key IRA members finished towards the end of 1989.
In a post-mortem, MI5 acknowledged executing CA (counter-action) "activity before we had developed either a controlling mechanism for it, or a means of fuelling it with suitable CA material".
Nonetheless, as late as 1990, Defence Secretary Tom King implied that disinformation was still used in Northern Ireland for "honourable security reasons".
Extracted from Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy by Rory Cormac, published by Oxford University Press. To order a copy for £20, go to www.global.oup.com/academic and search 'Disrupt and Deny'