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How the CIA-founded American state run media outlet survived the Soviet collapse to fight Cold War 2.0 — Analysis

The first of May marks the 51st anniversary of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (hereinafter “RFE/RL”, although this didn’t become the official name until 1976) – radio stations which broadcast into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, respectively. As detailed in an internal CIA document from 1951 titled “Radio Aims and Objectives,” RFE/RL was to be operated by refugees or exiles from the various Socialist Bloc countries to broadcast information intended to encourage “hatred against the regime(s)”To increase their effectiveness “will to resist the regime(s).”Also, the explicit purpose of this project was to get rid of any government that is not favorable to Washington.

Undoubtedly, May 1 was chosen as the launch of this project as it coincided with International Workers’ Day, one of the most important holidays in the Socialist Bloc. 

From its inception until 1972, it was the CIA which funded RFE/RL though it did so covertly without congressional knowledge or authorization. And it was CIA Director Allen Dulles – the mastermind behind the overthrow of democratic governments in countries like Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954) – who greenlit the secret financing of RFE/RL in the hope that it would contribute to the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Ironically, even as the CIA was backing this project, it was helping to restore fascist, military rule to Greece – which preferred to a Greek communist government. Because of their heroic fight against Nazis, the left-wingers enjoyed great popularity among the electorate.

The memories of this betrayal by the West in Greece were awakened recently when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared by video before the Greek parliament alongside a neo-Nazi Azov fighter, causing some of the members to get up and leave in protest.

In countries such as Indonesia and Chile, the US and its CIA made similar decisions and chose to support dictatorships of ultra right rather than democratic socialist governments.  

According to Cord Meyer, who took charge of the CIA’s relationship with Radio Liberty in 1954 and led these operations for many years, “[t]The CIA maintained complete control. [radio] content by formulating general policy guidelines, which were supplemented by daily meetings to determine the handling of specific news.”Meyer claims that Meyer’s control didn’t compromise the journalistic integrity or the broadcast programming.

Meyer claims that the stations were not spies, but radio staff kept meticulous records of their observations in each country. In other words, these radio workers provided intelligence to the CIA. And even after Congress ended CIA funding of RFE/RL in 1972 – the money would come directly from Congress from then on – its primary purpose remained to broadcast anti-communist programs into the East Bloc, at least until the communist governments in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union collapsed.

Of course, RFE/RL openly takes credit for helping to bring about this ultimate collapse, believing that its influence whittled away at the support of the various communist governments. It has found support for this claim from the likes of Vaclav Havel (who invited RFE/RL to move from its original headquarters in Munich, Germany to Prague after the collapse of the East Bloc) and Boris Yeltsin.

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I recall quite vividly, as someone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, the incessant complaints that the Soviet Union would often jam the signals of Radio Liberty – evidence, we were told, that Moscow simply could not handle the truth. I think of this now as the outlet I am writing this article for – RT, of course a Russian-based news outlet – is being suppressed in the US or outrightly banned in the EU.

You might be wondering what all this means for the US today.

RFE/RL would seem to be a relic of the bygone era of the Cold War when the US and the Soviet Union were vying for the hearts and minds of the world. Not only is the Cold War over, but it seems that most mainstream outlets – such as Fox, CNN and MSNBC – serve the same role as RFE/RL itself. And yet, RFE/RL continues to exist to this day, and indeed has received new life during the current crisis in Ukraine – a flashpoint which some observe as the beginning of a new Cold War.  

RFE/RL continues to broadcast even though the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This raises the question whether the original Cold War was ever ended. Certainly, some observers, myself included, believe that the stand-off didn’t come to a conclusion, and we strain to understand why. John Feffer wrote in agreement with my sentiments. In Focus: Foreign PolicyHe opined as follows:

It was more than a conflict between ideologies. As the USSR sought to achieve global power, the Soviet Union pulled out of this competition. Russia continues to focus on issues along its borders. Putin is a different kind of Russian. On the contrary, the US hasn’t changed its attitude. That is ultimately why the Cold War didn’t end.

BBC, Deutsche Welle, and other websites restricted in Russia

Washington could have disbanded NATO, advocated nuclear disarmament and created a new European security architecture that included Russia to end the Cold War. Because the Cold War institutions survived, however, the spirit of this enterprise remained intact, just waiting to be revived.

RFE/RL, of course, is just one. “institutions of the Cold War [which] lived on,”It may even continue the Cold War animosities. The state-run outlet, on the other hand, has been justified in its existence by these words: “With the collapse of communism, some thought RFE/RL had fulfilled its mission and could be disbanded. But officials throughout Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, many of them former dissidents, saw a continuing need for precisely the kind of objective broadcasts that RFE/RL provided, especially during democratic transition.” 

As the Economic Times points out, however, there are still some things you can do. “[b]RFE/RL was originally founded in Prague in 1950. The outlet provided anti-communist programs to the Soviet bloc. This helped topple totalitarian regimes more than four decades later. These days, it still broadcasts in 27 languages – including Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian – to 23 countries, many where media freedoms face severe restrictions.”The same applies to the other article. “RFE/RL, which has a target audience of 37 million people, stepped up activities in the region following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the occupation of eastern Ukraine by pro-Moscow rebel forces.”

They seem to lack any sense of irony and have an apparent total disregard for the concept. Economic TimesTo trumpet the RFE/RL workThese states “Russia very quickly understood that it is not necessary to lie to make successful propaganda. All you need is to withhold context and create white noise.”The US media and Western media know this, as evidenced by the current situation in Ukraine. The West’s current coverage of Ukraine would have viewers believe the Russian offensive in February caused the crisis. However, the conflict has existed for eight years between Kiev’s government and the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas, costing 14,000 lives. For casual news consumers, this missing context can be misleading. Moreover, referring to the Russian speakers in the eastern part of Ukraine as “pro-Moscow” as the Economic Times and nearly every other Western news outlet does fails to capture the very real grievances of these people who have been militarily attacked by their own government for years – whether they are pro-Moscow or not is not really the critical issue here. But, I suppose, one person’s propaganda is another person’s news, and vice versa.

‘It’s thought police’ – ex-German media employees on silencing RT DE

After the collapse of communism, RFE/RL followed wherever US foreign policy aims were focused. It explains that it began broadcasting in former Yugoslavia during the US-led NATO intervention in 1990. In the latter part of the 1990s, RFE/RL expanded to include other European countries, including Iraq and Iran. “[r]eflecting American attention to the greater Middle East…” Also, in 2002, RFE/RL started broadcasting in Afghanistan again – it had initially done so in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation but discontinued broadcasting thereafter.

However, the state-controlled outlet has never lost its focus on Russia and East Europe. Thus, in addition to increasing its reach in Ukraine, RFE/RL “expanded on… local news efforts between 2016 and 2019 by creating websites serving the needs of audiences in the North Caucasus, Middle Volga, Siberian, and Northwestern regions of Russia.”RFE/RL started to travel to Romania, Bulgaria, then Hungary starting in 2019. “in light of a reversal in democratic gains and attacks on the rule of law and the judiciary”These countries are the best.  

With the Cold War raging again between the US and Russia – whether it’s viewed as new or simply a continuation of the old confrontation – RFE/RL will certainly have a raison d’etre for some time to come, and its congressional funding (it’s parent body, the US Agency for Global Media, received over $810 million in 2020) certainly be secured. While there can be disagreement over whether RFE/RL continues to be necessary after the end of communism, or whether it in fact can be seen as unnecessarily stoking old Cold War tensions, the one thing that can be said of RFE/RL is that it does not, and really cannot, hide what it is. It is a US-funded news station that broadcasts programs reflecting American foreign policy views and interests. This is stated on the website.

The parent of this child proudly states that they must comply with “the broad foreign policies objectives of the United States”; and are required to be able to “provide a surge capability to support United States foreign foreign policy objectives in times of crisis abroad.” Again, no secret is made of this.

To be fair, this, in my view, makes RFE/RL less nefarious than other institutions – such as private broadcast news or even Hollywood movies which we know are heavily influenced by the CIA – which claim to be objective arbiters of the truth and reality, but which really are not.

That’s not to say that RFE/RL is lying, but it is certainly giving a slanted view of the world. This is because the truth of the matter is obvious. The audience should be able to make some intelligent judgements about whether the information they’re being given is accurate. Many times, that’s the best we can ask for.

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