Sunday, January 6, 2019

When the Best-laid Schemes go askew: Project BGSPEED: The Propaganda Vessel for Albania, Part 1 Posted by Richard H. Cummings

The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

(From the Poem by Robert Burns, in modern English)

In the late 1940s, the United States decided to stem Soviet underground subversive operations and to create a new clandestine agency for that purpose. This would have to be a new organisation not to operate against the established clandestine collection of intelligence and counterintelligence already assigned to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  

On June 18, 1948, the US National Security Council (NSC), directed that the task of confrontation the Soviet Union clandestinely to a new Office of Special Projects – the name was changed later to the Office of Policy Coordination.  The NSC directive gave it,  “A loose charter to undertake the full range of covert activities incident to the conduct of secret political, psychological, and economic warfare together with preventive direct action (paramilitary activities)-all within the policy direction of the Departments of State and Defense.” 

In October 1949, OPC planned to use a “sea-borne broadcast transmitter” to transmit recorded programs inland with “live spot” announcements. It was planed to use a 1000-watt, medium wave transmitter to reach the largest audience in Albania by using a strong enough signal to overpower Radio Tirana’s frequency:

It has been agreed that these broadcasts shall be based, for various technical, security and political reasons, on a ship to cruise in and around the Adriatic and Ionian Seas...[T]his vessel with minor modifications can be converted into a floating broadcasting station capable of sending medium-wave broadcasts into all points in Albania. It will be operated in a 100-mile arc at the end of a 300-mile radius from the farthest point to be covered in the country.

The decision to use a vessel carrying a medium wave transmitter was that there were, at that time, no OPC land based transmitters in Italy or Greece. Medium wave broadcasts were chosen because of an estimate that of the approximately 50,000 radios in Albania, between 30,000 and 37,500 were medium-wave sets.  It was also estimated that 10,000 to 12,000 short-wave radios receivers were in Albania, most of them owned by Communist officials.

The idea was that the boat would be purchased in England. In November 1949 four prospective vessels were located, with one finally identified as being suitable enough to the operation. The cost of purchasing this vessel was put at $56,000 and OPC was to pay for it. The British were to, 

  • provide cover for the purchase, refit, and extended operation, plus
  • arrange for the transfer of the title of vessel and canceal the ownership through a cover owner. 

The British were also to provide the crew and costs of refitting the boat for broadcasting and the operating costs were to be split “fifty-fifty.”

For some unknown reason, this joint project was not pursued. In April 1950, OPC, using the outline of the British plan for Albania code-name VALUABLE, decided to seek a vessel in the United States, to be put into operational use in August 1950.  The project was given the cryptonym BGSPEED, a subproject of the OPC Albanian country plan BGFIEND: “A country project for the purpose of selecting, training,and infiltrating indigenous agents into Albania to effect and support resistance activities for the purpose of overthrowing the Communist controlled government in Tirana." 

The requirements for this vessel included, 

  • Ability to support a propaganda staff of five men in addition to a full complement of the crew.
  • Ability to carry sufficient water, fuel, and food to remain on station of the heel of Italy for at least twelve consecutive days with a full complement aboard, between return trips to Athens, Greece.
  • Sufficient stock of engine parts and spares aboard to operate overseas independently for one year.
  • Sufficient space aboard to permit installation of radio equipment and one compartment to be used as a recording and broadcasting studio.

It was decided to use a “yacht-type vessel” because it was, 

  • the more suitable for reasons of flexibility of operation, 
  • private cover potentialities as viewed against commercial cover, 
  • height of masts in relationship to size for accommodation of the radio broadcast antennae.

By May 1950, two yacht brokers were asked to locate an appropriate vessel and three yachts were identified: one was in Acapulco, Mexico, one in Miami, Florida, and one in Gloucester, Massachusetts. OPC then used a cleared “cutout” for the purchase of the yacht.  The man already owned two yachts and bought and sold yachts for years.  

The “cutout” was to be financed by OPC, receive the title to the yacht and deliver it to the Smith Boat Yard in Baltimore, Maryland, for refitting and conversion to include “decking, placing of copper sheathing on the hull, …broadcast studio, and other repairs necessary for extended operations.”  The “cutout “owner then was to transfer the vessel to Panamanian registration. A Panamanian-licensed master named Leslie Holmes, with an OPC security clearance, would then chose the crew. $150,000 was budgeted for the purchase. 

After inspection of two of the vessels, the “motor sail /ketch” IRMAY was chosen as the one most “adaptable from the point of view of broadcast requirements, maneuverability, accommodations for the crew and staff and can be outfitted in the least time and expense.” The IRMAY was purchased for $80,000 ($840,000 equivalent in 2019).

The captain of the IRMAY and crew were experienced and reportedly were involved in several scientific expeditions in the Caribbean and South America.

The operational cover included the chartering of the vessel to a non-existent “Institute”-- the Mediterranean Marine. Special letter-head stationary was printed and a “sterile” address was procured, in case any materials would be sent to the fictional “Institute.” The “Institute” also made a letter of endorsement to the Chief OPC officer on board the vessel indicating that he was employed in “scientific explorations in the Mediterranean.” 

In June 1950, a joint Bulgarian-Albanian propaganda center was set up in Athens, Greece. The Albanian broadcasts were to be prepared there, based on a joint propaganda policy-directive approved with the British. However, the British were not involved on the operational level.  One of the stations in the Athens central system would transmit to the vessel a daily teletype broadcast of the next day’s program. Spot broadcasts would be transcribed on board the vessel. 

OPC Assistant Director for Policy Coordination Frank Wisner approved the project on June 14, 1950. However, he wrote this handwritten comment on the cover sheet ( “This project has been approved, with much trepidation… I have seen this kind of thing tried twice during the last war with eventual abandonment of the project in each instance.”

The project was not put into operation in August 1950 as originally planned.I n September 1950, final arrangements for the cover “Institute” were made. A lawyer in Baltimore was cleared to set up the  articles of incorporation in the State of Maryland.  His office was listed as the official address of the “Institute” for any correspondence. Four Directors of the “Institute” were listed, three of whom were pseudonyms. The printing of the letterheads, issue of bona fide stock to the Directors, chartering of the vessel (including the actual transfer of funds”, and the establishment of a bank account in Baltimore for “Mediterranean Marine,” through which funds to pay personnel aboard and to operate the vessel would be transferred regularly to a bank account. A part-time trusted bookkeeper was hired to maintain the both the overt and covert expense accounts.

The IRMAY left Baltimore for Miami in December 1950 with OPC engineering personnel on board. On the way, there were tests conducted of the medium (sky-wave) transmissions. Rough seas off Cape Hatteras, sea sickness, and mechanical problems ensued, but in general the tests were positive. The conclusion: “It can be seen that there are no technical radio factors which might limit the effectiveness of BGGIEND project as originally planned.”

While in Miami, Captain Holmes made an unknown security violation and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) became aware of the OPC connection to the IRMAY. The Miami office of the Bureau of Customs wanted to inspect the vessel. The Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Customs was contacted with the request to stop the inspection.

ADPC Frank Wisner sent a message to Navy Rear Admiral Leslie C. Stevens giving some details of the BGSPEED operation. Admiral Stevens, coincidently, would later become President of the American Committee for the Liberation of Bolshevism – the parent organization for Radio Liberty.  Wisner promised Stevens and the Bureau of Customs that any future operations having any bearing on those agencies would be advised by OPC.

It was decided to let Captain Holmes continue to hold his position until the first port of call in Europe, when he would be replaced and returned to the United States--possible to face prosecution.

In St. Thomas, Virgin Islands the name of the yacht was changed to “JUANITA”, and the registry changed from US to Panamanian. JUANITA departed from Barbados on February 1, 1951, for Europe and arrived in Patras, Greece, on March 25, 1951. The cryptonym for the yacht was KMHYMNAL.

What could go wrong?  A lot, as we will read in the next blog

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