From the past: FBIS and World War II

In late 1940, many in the U.S. Government harbored concerns about foreign governments using radio to send propaganda and instructions to covert operatives. The State Department was concerned about “anti-American propaganda being short-waved hourly to Latin America.” The Department of Justice wanted to know whether “Axis agents in the United States received direction and guidance from Nazi short-wave programs” and wanted to stay on top of “the growing aggressiveness of Japan as reflected in her radio broadcasts.” 

Following a formal request on January 3, 1941, by the State Department to begin listening to foreign radio reaching the United States, the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service was created on February 25, 1941, with $150,000 appropriated for the purpose by Congress “for expenses to analyze incoming short-wave radio propaganda and so forth.” The FBMS was soon renamed to the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service and operated from within the Federal Communications Commission.

FBIS was operational a few months later in June. It did not prepare or transmit domestic or international broadcasts. The purpose was to be the “central agency serving all Government agencies requiring foreign broadcast material” by monitoring broadcasts from around the world and providing analysis on conditions in other nations. In part, the BBC’s monitoring service validated the State Department request.

I need not emphasize that radio as an instrument of propaganda has proved its importance beyond any doubt and that the methods employed by the British Broadcasting Corporation and other governments to analyze the intentions of other government by study of their official broadcasts have been considered by General Staff officials to have the greatest military value and are regular feature now in the British Intelligence Service.

Professor William Yandell Elliott, Member of the Advisory Commission of the Council of National Defense, January 1941. Source: House hearings on FBIS, March 7-June 21, 1944.

FBIS was monitoring the “new media” of the day for national security, as the director of FBIS described in testimony in 1944.

Short- and medium-wave broadcasting as an auxiliary method of waging war has been accepted by all nations directly or indirectly involved in the present conflict. …

Around the world at this hour and every hour of the 24 there is a constant battle on the ether waves for the possession of man’s thoughts, emotions, and attitudes — influencing his will to fight, to stop fighting, to work hard, to stop working, to resist and sabotage, to doubt, to grumble, to stand fast in faith and loyalty. … We estimate that by short wave alone, you as a citizen of this radio world are being assailed by 2,000 words per minute in 40-45 different languages and dialects. In [FBIS], we are equipped to monitor 34 of those languages plus 30 other dialects. …

Robert D. Leigh, Director, Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS), FCC, testifying during hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the Federal Communications Commission, March 7-June 21, 1944.

Leigh’s testimony was detailed and delved into Axis and Allied radio activities before and after December 1941. A small sample is below.

As for our Allies, Russia is a pioneer in the development of international broadcasting, especially for political purposes. So far as we have been able to learn, Moscow, 15 or more years ago, was the first nation to transmit radio programs to foreign audiences in the foreign languages. Her programs were beamed to Germany in the German language and were pro-Communist propaganda.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Russia now is the crisis of war should have an extensive program of broadcasting. Announced mostly as Radio Moscow, there is a Russian network of 39 short-wave transmitters, carrying programs on 77 different frequencies in 25 languages, 24 hours a day. The programs are in English, Czech, Italian, Slovene, Croat, Ukrainian, and the Baltic languages and Russian dialects beamed to all in these language groups…

In March 1943 the Analysis Division of the FBIS published a special 60-page report, Clandestine Radio Stations, which proved particularly useful to certain Government agencies interested in this matter. … Some major clandestine stations, past and present:
(1) The Chief — Probably the most famous anti-Nazi clandestine. Strongly anti party and particularly anti-SS. Takes the side of the Wehrmacht against the party. Tells ‘inside’ stories about private and public lives of party officials, often proved correct later. Language always profane and frequency obscene. Spreads rumors by denying them. Went off air in November 1943.
(2) New British broadcasting station — A veteran clandestine, begun in February 1940. Presents British Fascist point of view — anti-Churchill, anti-Jewish, anti-‘plutocracy’ — tries to give impression of cohesive underground organization in Great Britain at its command. …
(3) Brazzaville II — Masqueraded as another De Gaullist station but was actually located near Vichy. Started 2 days after Darlan’s assassination in December 1942. … It is intended to create confusion in the already complex French situation, to aggravate political differences, and to prevent French unity. It has been rather skillful in furthering its true aims while pretending to be just the opposite.
(4) German Catholic station — Seeks to enlist German Catholics, especially Austrian, in anti-Nazi crusade. Propaganda has theological and moral rather than political base. Attempts to substitute loyalty to church for loyalty to state, and calls for active resistance to the ‘godless’ leaders of Germany.
(5) Radio Atlantic — Broadcasts to German seamen, with impersonal and objective news items describing difficult conditions in Germany. Aims to demoralize German sailors by discouraging news of home and of the hopeless state of the war in general.

Robert D. Leigh, ibid.

Below is the list of languages FBIS monitored, as provided by Leigh.