(W)Archives: The Tale of the Tape

May 2, 2014

In late March, the Russian government released what it said was a recording of a phone call involving former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in which she reveals a foul mouth and (more importantly) seems to call for violence against Russia and Putin, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons.  Tymoshenko responded by saying that the recording was a “montage” that misrepresented what she had meant, though she did apologize for the obscenities.  Just this week, as part of a powerful blast against the agitprop operation of Russian state-backed television network RT, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel sounded the same note, calling the tape “selectively edited” and just the sort of lies and incitement to violence that are typical of RT.

In 1983, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan faced a similar problem.  A recording of a phone call between the two of them had made its way into the public domain, and showed them fully living up to the gun-slinging stereotypes of them held by leftists.

Earlier this year, the UK National Archives released file PREM 19/1380, Downing Street’s file on the matter.  It reveals that MI6 was asked to examine the tape and determine its origin.  The answer came back that it was a “voice patch forgery” and probably hadn’t come from the KGB, but that it might be Argentinian or the work of a domestic group.  To investigate the latter possibility, MI6 referred the matter to MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service.  In fact, the press soon correctly reported that the tape was a prank by the anarcho-punk band Crass.

In early April 1984, at the height of the scandal, the Home Secretary advised Thatcher not to refer to the matter in public, as it would “draw undesirable attention to the actual content.”  He went on, “though it is a blatant forgery some would insist on believing otherwise.”

The Home Secretary was probably right.  This tape, like most successful deceptions, appealed to what the target audience already believed: in this case that Thatcher and Reagan were warmongers teetering on the edge of being unhinged.  In fact, the cover letter from the person who first sent the tape to the press said that the recording “confirms at last all of [the journalists’] misgivings and what they already knew.”

In seeming to confirm what many people already “knew,” the fake Thatcher-Reagan tape is like the Tymoshenko one.  The Tymoshenko recording seems to provide proof of what too many people in the West seem to believe these days: scratch a Ukrainian and you find a fascist, or at least a hardcore nationalist who wishes evil on Jews and ethnic Russians.  The tape is probably aimed, therefore, at undermining external support for any Ukrainian resistance to the creeping Russian takeover.

Moscow seems pretty good at this sort of thing.  Gee, I wonder if they’ve done it before.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Poland MFA