By Neil Harris
THE JIMMY Savile affair has shown how easy it was for a dishonest and manipulative man to use the BBC as a cover for his sinister activities. Unfortunately for the last 65 years, the corporation has been happy to allow its name to be used as cover by an organisation which operates with the same characteristics as Savile but to far more deadly effect.
This October a series of enigmatic job advertisements appeared in the national press for “An office of the US Embassy London based in Berkshire”; seeking “Current Affairs Officers” specialising in Russian, Middle East or Iranian Current Affairs. Paying from £27,000 to £34,000 a year, these required good languages, including an ability to translate into English combined with writing skills and knowledge of the new media. For the Russian posts fluency in “Central Asian and/or Caucasus languages” would be desirable, while the Middle East/Iranian posts need a “working fluency in Arabic or Persian”.
Applications were invited to “London HRC@state.gov”, which are, of course, our old friends in the US State Department, except in this case, the story doesn’t end there. Even though the Middle East, Iran and Russia are high on the State Department’s wish list for regime change, these “Current Affairs Officers” will find that they are working for a different outfit altogether.
Berkshire contains a number of sites of interest to the American intelligence community, but only one that has had a historic connection with the State Department – BBC Caversham, now known as BBC Monitoring. There has been an American presence on the BBC site since the 1947 agreement effectively merged the British and American wartime monitoring centres that had been created to listen in to the Axis powers radio broadcasts.
The American Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) was created as a component of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology and usually had about 20 to 30 bureaux around the world focusing on the Far East, the Pacific Rim and Latin America. Caversham concentrated on Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Africa, Europe and the Middle East were a joint effort, while the two organisations swapped information where required, to help each other out. After the end of the Cold War, expenditure cuts threatened both arms of the service, but the destruction of the World Trade Center and the war on terror provided a much needed lifeline.
BBC Caversham had always received most of its funding from the “Foreign Office”, effectively on behalf of MI6. This then shifted to the “Cabinet Office”, a more general euphemism for the intelligence services. From 2013 the £25 million-a-year cost of the 400 British staff and seven foreign bureaux will be coming from the general BBC budget, although the service will be of no benefit to the licence payer.
According to BBC Monitoring’s 2008 annual report Iraq and Afghanistan are “Priority one countries” and acknowledged that the “coverage of Pakistan had tripled after 2003”. The service concentrated on “political, economic, security and media news, comment and reaction”, and always does so in response to demand from the intelligence services of America and Britain. However, none of this potentially interesting information is available to the licence paying public, except in an edited version via subscription services like Lexis-Nexis.
By the beginning of this century Washington looked on FBIS as an increasingly out of date and out of touch Cold War relic. The 11th September 2001 changed all that and in 2005 the old division of the CIA became the “Open Source Center” (OSC), proudly acknowledged on the CIA website as an “intelligence center” of the CIA. The budget was safeguarded and its remit expanded to collect information from the “internet, databases, press, radio, TV, video, geospatial data, photos and commercial images”.
By 2006, the OSC had “stepped up data collection and analysis to include bloggers worldwide and developing new methods to gauge the reliability of the content”. A statistical study of OSC’s main areas of interest showed that the top five countries listened in to were then , in descending order: Russia, China, Japan, Iran and south Korea. Countries like Japan, south Korea, France and Britain are surprisingly high on the list because they are important intelligence targets for American commercial interests.
Later Twitter and Facebook were added to the list, proving to be especially useful during the “Arab Spring”, where monitoring the new social media gave the CIA/OSC an ability to gauge the level of support for the opposition. This allowed other agencies ranging from the State department to the CIA, and of course the Foreign Office-funded BBC World Service, to alter their propaganda or interventions as necessary. Recently the OSC has been practising by comparing its analysis of American new media traffic with traditional opinion poll results to hone its predictive skills.
This brings us back to why the BBC would be lending its name to a CIA operation directed at over half the world’s population. For the last 65 years it has been an open secret that FBIS officers (just like the majority of CIA officers) were operating out of US Embassies, under the cover of being State Department diplomats. The Department of State’s own Office of Allowances, which sets out pay and allowances by location around the world, provides a helpful guide to the rates payable to officers posted to Caversham. It always does so with reference to FBIS being the “lead agency”, even after the formation of the Open Source Center. This is further confirmation that State Department staff posted to Caversham are really CIA operatives, working on BBC premises.
It’s highly unlikely that any country, except perhaps Britain, would welcome a CIA station, openly gathering information on its own territory. Indeed, Open Source Center bureaux are usually located in friendly countries. However, the BBC is able to operate seven foreign bureaux around the world, without interference, currently located in Azerbaijan, Egypt, India, Kenya, Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. These offices are able to collect both TV and radio as well as print and electronic data. In the case of the Russian Federation, which has always been the main country of interest to America, it is even more unlikely that Putin would welcome being encircled by a ring of such stations in the Caucasus, Kiev and Moscow, if they were being operated by an “intelligence center “ of the CIA .