Covert Propaganda in the Cold War

James Ritchie

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 2

E.H.Carr defined propaganda as “the specific means by which a state gained power over opinion.”(1) This definition includes overt methods such as political statements by leaders and publicly acknowledged media such as the BBC World Service or the Voice of America. In addition to its overt form,”(p)ropaganda is the bread and butter of covert action.”(2) Covert or black propaganda, in which the origins of the message are diguised, were used extensively during the Cold War. This essay examines and evaluates first the uses and secondly the limits of covert propaganda during the Cold War, before concluding why such an analysis is problematic.

The Uses of Covert Propaganda

There are several advantages to using propaganda in covert operations, the first of which is that like all covert operations, propaganda can be the quiet option. When effective, propaganda can avert more embarrassing or dangerous situations. In order to prevent further conflict with China in 1969, KGB residencies and co-opted journalists began circulating rumours that the Soviet Union was considering a pre-emptive strike against China. “In the short term the campaign helped to pressure Beijing…into reopening talks on the border dispute.”(3)

Covert propaganda can allow a state to influence another state’s electoral process. Both the United States and the Soviet Union intervened in the democratic process of foreign states by using propaganda. The Italian elections in 1948 saw American financial support for the Christian Democratic Party and “millions went on media campaigns to spread black propaganda against the Communists and extol the virtues of their opponents.”(4) The covert production of propaganda materials in Italy was intended to rival Soviet support for the Italian Communists. In the Indian elections of 1967 Soviet covert propaganda was widespread. The KGB’s Yuri Modin forged letters from the US Consul in Bombay to the American Ambassador implying that S.K.Patil, an anticommunist candidate, was receiving large sums of money from the United States and that he was doing deals with Pakistan.(5) American covert operations in Chile included a propaganda campaign during the 1964 election to support the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva against the Socialist Salvador Allende Gossens. “CIA-controlled assets placed propaganda in major Chilean newspapers, and on the radio and television; erected wall posters; passed out political leaflets.”(6) Six years later the CIA once again intervened in Chilean elections using propaganda. This time the “CIA managed to generate at least one editorial a day at El Mercurio, the major Santiago daily, based on American guidance,”(7) warning Chileans of the consequences of an election win for Allende. Clearly propaganda has played a central role in covert operations intended to influence foreign elections. In such operations, in which the objective is to change the attitudes and electoral intentions of a population, propaganda is the most important and effective weapon in the covert operations armoury.

Propaganda can play a supporting role in covert operations intended to bring about a change in government outside electoral processes. The most striking example of this is the case of Guatemala. The CIA launched a covert operation to support the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, President of Guatemala, which involved providing the rebels with arms and training. “The overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 looks like a paramilitary operation but was in fact more a propaganda success.”(8) The rebel leader, Armas was supported by a sophisticated propaganda operation which was needed to exaggerate the scale of his “invasion.” Central to this covert operation, named Operation PBSUCCESS, was the radio station which supported Armas by inventing battles and exaggerating the size of the invading force. “The Voice of Liberation Radio, set up by the CIA, won a major propaganda victory by broadcasting a carefully stage- managed interview with a pilot who had defected.”(9) Immediately following that broadcast, Arbenz grounded his entire air force for the duration of the conflict.(10) Without a rival air force to contend with, Armas’ small fleet of old aircraft was able to bomb with complete freedom. This influence was brought about for a price of less than $6 million.(11) In covert operations to encourage a coup d’etat, propaganda can play a vital role in generating support for an opposing force and exaggerating that force’s capabilities and achievements.

Covert propaganda can also be used independantly of other actions, in order to change general attitudes. The United States carried out a range of covert propaganda operations to influence the attitudes of people in the Soviet bloc. Radio Free Europe broadcast to Eastern Europe from 1950 onwards, while Radio Liberty was targeted at the Soviet Union after 1953. Both obscured their origins and “claimed to be funded by non-governmental sources until their backing from the CIA was revealed many years later.”(12) The KGB made extensive use of covert propaganda to attack individuals it disliked and to alienate the third world from the United States. The KGB carried out smear campaigns during elections, as was discussed earlier in the case of S.K.Patil, but individuals were also attacked on occasions other than elections. “The Soviet deception machines have been particularly adept at using the foreign media for political assassination of people considered dangerous to the Politburo’s interests.”(13) Mrs Thatcher, Franz Josef Strauss and Jeane Kirkpatrick were all targeted during the Cold War. “Probably the most successful active measure in the Third World during the early years of the Gorbachev era…was the attempt to blame AIDS on American biological warfare.”(14) The campaign began in the pro-Soviet, Indian paper The Patriot, in 1983 and was picked up throughout the world by many Third World media organisations and in the west by the likes of the Sunday Telegraph and Channel Four. The AIDS case highlights a key benefit of propaganda, known as the “multiplier effect.”(15) A single article written by a coopted journalist or published in a friendly newspaper, can be picked up and repeated in other papers and media. Thus for a minimal effort, propaganda can reach an enormous audience and have a wide impact.

The Limits of Covert Propaganda

There are several important limitations on the utility of covert propaganda, the first of which is common to all covert operations. The so-called quiet option is very often noisy and propaganda is no exception. Propaganda campaigns involve coordinating a large number of activities, creating risks of leaks. An intricate American plan to oust Colonel Ghadafi of Libya was prepared in 1986: rafts, communications equipment and money would be dropped into Libya, false radio broadcasts would suggest an imminent US-French invasion from Chad, planted articles in the press would report infighting between potential Ghadafi successors and local diplomats would fan these rumours.(16) The CIA was unable or unwilling to keep such a plan secret and The Washington Post and New York Times both ran stories on the operation in early October 1986.(17) The propaganda campaign had to be abandoned because it had ceased to be covert.

The benefits of the multiplier effect carry a risk: “Replay of information in the United States, called blowback, is one of the nightmares…for the CIA.”(18) The CIA is forbidden from interfering with the domestic American media, yet propaganda articles intended for foreign consumption can end up in American newspapers. Fears of such an event lead to the cancellation of a CIA propaganda campaign emphasising the need for Pershing II missiles in Europe in 1984.(19) The difficulties in trying to control propaganda are further illustrated by the case of the KGB’s AIDS campaign. The story after four years was beginning to take off by 1987, at the very time that Gorbachev was trying to improve East-West relations. “Faced with official American protests and the repudiation of the Aids story by the international scientific community, the Kremlin for the first time showed signs of public embarrassment at a successful active measures campaign.”(20) Despite KGB efforts to deliberately disown the story, the allegations persist in some circles. A similar KGB-created propaganda campaign, about rich Americans buying body parts from murdered South American children for use in organ transplants, continues to circulate throughout the Southern Hemisphere, seven years after the end of the Cold War.(21) Propaganda, more than any other covert tactic, is very difficult to control, and campaigns started with a specific intention can develop into highly embarrassing alternatives.

A further problem with covert propaganda is that it may have only limited impact. “The adversary who is confronted by a (propaganda) attack and doesn’t see anything behind it is likely to see a paper tiger.”(22) The case of Guatemala, as discussed above, relied heavily upon propaganda. Despite the enormous and highly sophisticated propaganda campaign, the struggle between Armas and Arbenz developed into a stalemate which was not resolved by propaganda. Only when the United States gave Armas extra planes, which were used to bomb cities, was the American Ambassador able to persuade General Diaz to lead a coup against Arbenz.(23) Thus Guatemala was a triumph partly of CIA propaganda, but propaganda alone was insufficient to bring about Arbenz’s downfall: paramilitary force and American diplomacy were required to complete the task. In intervening in the 1964 Chilean elections, the CIA did not rely solely on propaganda: funds were provided to Frei, the Christian Democrats were provided with a political consultant to help their campaign and the CIA organised political action operations.(24) There is only so much that any covert propaganda campaign alone can achieve, however well executed it may be.

In some instances covert propaganda campaigns fail absolutely and are either ridiculed or else have unintended results. The above mentioned attempted character assassination by the KGB of the American Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, consisted of a forged letter from a counsellor at the South African embassy which, as “priviously,” (sic) thanked her for her help.(25) The KGB, through a Dutch agent of influence, Arne Petersen, published pamphlets littered with errors, from describing Conservative MP Reginald Maudling as a “rightist Labour politician”, to accusing Prime Minister “Tahtcher” (sic) of “being sustained by big monopolies interests.”(26) Several such propaganda operations “proved insufficiently sophisticated for a western market.”(27) While these KGB efforts may have been laughable, the CIA’s propaganda efforts to encourage the overthrow of President Achmed Sukarno of Indonesia by rebel colonels, had an altogether different impact. The CIA went to great lengths to make “a pornographic film starring a Sukarno look-alike, hoping to discredit the president among his followers; it had no observable effect other than, apparently, to titillate Sukarno.”(28) CIA briefers told William Casey that a propaganda campaign to smuggle thousands of books behind the Iron Curtain “could not change, let alone nudge the course of history.”(29) The danger clearly exists that covert propaganda exercises may be irrelevant, or worse, treated as little more than a joke.


Propaganda can be a very useful tool in covert operations. It can be used to avert public embarrassment, it can influence foreign political processes (democratic or otherwise), it is comparatively cheap and can be used to influence world opinion. Covert propaganda operations were used extensively throughout the Cold War and show no signs of diminishing in the post-Cold War era. Covert propaganda suffers from several limitations however; it can blowback and spiral out of control, it is sometimes insufficient to achieve the intended ends and it can fail completely to have any influence. The greatest problem in assessing covert propaganda however, lies in evaluating the extent of success or failure of a campaign. The aim of propaganda is to affect people’s minds; it can be very difficult to know why people make the decisions they do. In influencing elections for example, CIA and KGB propaganda was only one factor in influencing the voting. Political party campaigning, independent of CIA or KGB interference, played a role, as did existing attitudes among voters and the media. “The actual influence of CIA psychological warfare on the outcome of the Italian elections remains impossible to estimate.”(30) Gregory Treverton’s evaluation of the impact of covert operations in general, is especially true of propaganda: “It may be that the action, while marginal was just the bit of support for our friends that tipped the balance in the internal politics of a foreign country. On the other hand, it may be that the US support was entirely superfluous, that the same successful outcome would have ensued without US involvement.”(31)


1. Mark D.Alleyne, International Power and International Communication. Macmillan 1995. P7
2. Gregory F.Treverton, Covert Action – The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World. Basic Books 1987. P14
3. C. Andrew & Oleg Gordievsky, KGB The Inside Story. Hodder and Stoughton 1990. P411
4. Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only. Harper-Collins 1995. P172
5. Andrew and Gordievsky. P418
6. James A.Barry, “Covert Action Can Be Just.” Orbis Summer 1993. P381
7. Trevertont. P15
8. ibid. P15
9. Andrew. P208
10. Treverton. P71
11. Andrew. P370
12. Alleyne. P102
13. Chapman Pincher, The Truth about Dirty Tricks. Sidgwick & Jackson 1991. P261
14. Andrew & Gordievsky. P529
15. Treverton. P15
16. Edward Jay Epstein, Deception. Simon & Schuster 1989. P232
17. Bob Woodward, Veil. Simon & Schuster 1987. P477
18. ibid. P129
19. ibid. P373
20. Andrew and Gordievsky. P529
21. ibid. P520
22. Douglas Waller Washington, “Onward Cyber Soldiers”. Time Magazine August 21 1995
23. Andrew. P250
24. Barry. P381
25. Andrew & Gordievsky. P491
26. ibid. P495
27. ibid. P491
28. Andrew. P250
29. Woodward. P78
30. Andrew. P172
31. Treverton. P174