Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Propaganda, Pearl Harbor, and the Wartime History of the FBIS

Envisioning intelligence gathering in the mid-20th century can bring to mind noir-like images of trenchcoated operatives and men and women hunched over wireless radios and typewriters – in short, something out of the novels of Eric Ambler and Alan Furst. As stereotypical as that may seem, there’s some truth to the idea when looking at the United States’s effort to monitor foreign radio traffic with the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, or FBIS.

The FBIS got its start in February of 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt created its WWII-era predecessor, the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service. As shown below – in an excerpt from the 1942 volume of the Government Manual – the role of the FBMS was to monitor foreign propaganda and to help predict policy shifts from foreign governments.

On July 29, 1941, five-months after President Roosevelt's order, and four months before a fateful change in America's own policy, FBMS Director Lloyd Free testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee on the necessity of monitoring broadcast communications, which then were primarily shortwave radio signals.

Director Free continued:

Free's push for increased funding and increased legitimacy for the FBMS was timely, as monitoring stations in Portland, Ore. (the first FBMS locale), San Juan, P.R., London and Kingsville, Tex. – some set up only months before – were helpful in capturing broadcasts and shortwave transmissions coming from parts of Asia unfriendly toward the U.S.

Indeed, in a manner that may strike a tone reminiscent of criticisms of intelligence gathering before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, FBIS's first report, issued on December 6th, 1941, detailed Japan's increasingly aggressive tone toward the United States.* The next day, the Hawaiian port of Pearl Harbor was viciously attacked by Japanese air forces, and America entered as an active combatant into World War II.

From American Memory: The USS West Virginia on fire, bomed a day after the FBMS released its report on increasing hostility from Japan.

Joseph E. Roop, an FBIS editor from 1942-1966, wrote in his history of the FBIS (a book only recently declassified in 2009), "It must be said that when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor suddenly plunged the United States into war, FBMS was in position, but only partially prepared."

Not surprisingly, Roop found that after Pearl Harbor, the demand for the Service would come to surpass that of mainstream news outlets.

As America's participation in World War II expanded, so did the demand for the FMBS. Broadcast transcripts from Russia and China were in high demand in 1941, according to Roop, and by 1944, in his testimony to the House Committee to Investigate the Federal Communications Commission FBIS Director Robert Leigh presented a list to the House of more than 50 languages and regional dialects to which the FBIS provided translations, much of this in response to Nazi propaganda efforts.

Ironically, it was amid Congressional threats to reduce its budget that Leigh presented his information. The article "FBIS Against the Axis, 1941-1945," featured in the CIA's Studies In Intelligence journal gives an excellent and brief overview of the FBIS's continuing struggles for legitimacy, recognition, and, of course, funding, amid political bickering and a full-scale investigation of the FCC.

The article also succinctly captures the end of this complicated chapter in the FBIS's history, when Congress showed its willinesss to close the FBIS at the end of the World War:
With the Axis in ashes, people were ready to forget the world once more. OSS was disbanded in September 1945, the month that Japan signed the instruments of surrender. On 15 August, FBIS had monitored Emperor Hirohito’s announcement that Japan would surrender. Four months later, on 4 December, the last Daily Report appeared. The FCC terminated FBIS the following day. Thus ended the wartime service of Washington’s premier OSINT organization.

In January 1946, the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division took the baton from the FCC and assumed ownership of FBIS. The first issue of the new Daily Report was published that same month.

The FBIS continued under the Military Intelligence Division (and under the Central Intelligence Agency) until 1996, facing similiar challenges to its legitimacy along the way, but even today a version of the Service still exists. The result is a body of work from the FBIS that has become, in effect, one of the richest mines of primary source materials available in translation to scholars of history, poitics, foreign policy, foreign journalism and propaganda.

The results of this history are present in the FBIS Daily Reports. This database, whose coverage at UCB spans 1974-1996, demonstrates the wealth of original language news reports, interviews, and broadcasts captured, translated, and transcribed by the Service.

To encourage exploration and provide easy organization, the database has an "Events" tab that allows for a thorough look from non-U.S. media on dozens of historic events, including the 1990 Persian Gulf War, the 1994 election of South African President Nelson Mandela, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1998, the Indonesian invasion of Timor in 1975, and the Iranian capture of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 that led to U.S. hostages held captive for 444 days.

Students of journalism in particular may find that the presentation of history takes on a significantly different tone through the media of other nations, especially those with hostile relationships to the United States. The Soviet Union’s 1986 announcement of the massive Chernobyl nuclear meltdown is announced in this article by Moscow TASS in one line, followed by six paragraphs on "similar accidents" in the U.S.

What becomes clear, whichever region or event you explore, is that the FBIS Daily Reports provide a truly unique means to discover primary sources, in translation, about some of the world's most significant events. Add to that, the FBIS's own history is as complicated and fascinating as that of any government effort, with startling ties to the events and era that led to its creation. These are resources, both in front of and behind the scenes, that those interested in American history, espionage, propaganda and legitimate journalism, should not miss.

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