British Security Co-ordination

BSC operated from the 35th and 36th floors of the International Building, Rockefeller Center, New York during World War II

British Security Co-ordination (BSC) was a covert organisation set up in New York City by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in May 1940 upon the authorisation of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Its purpose was to investigate enemy activities, prevent sabotage against British interests in the Americas, and mobilise pro-British opinion in the Americas. As a 'huge secret agency of nationwide news manipulation and black propaganda', the BSC influenced news coverage in the Herald Tribune, the New York Post, The Baltimore Sun, and Radio New York Worldwide.[1] The stories disseminated from Rockefeller Center would then be legitimately picked up by other radio stations and newspapers, before being relayed to the American public.[1] Through this, anti-German stories were placed in major American media outlets to turn public opinion.[2]

Its cover was the British Passport Control Office. BSC benefitted from support given by the chief of the US Office of Strategic Services, William J. Donovan (whose organisation was modelled on British activities), and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was staunchly anti-Nazi.[3]


As head of the British Security Coordination, William Stephenson has been credited with changing American public opinion from an isolationist stance to a supportive tendency regarding America's entry into World War II.[4]

The declaration of war upon Germany by the British in September 1939 forced a break in liaison between SIS and the FBI because of the Neutrality Acts of 1930s. William Stephenson was sent to the US by the head of SIS to see if it could be rekindled to an extent that SIS could operate effectively in the US. While J. Edgar Hoover was sympathetic, he could not go against the State Department without the President's authorisation; he also believed that if it was authorised, it should be a personal liaison between Stephenson and himself without other departments being informed. However, Roosevelt endorsed co-operation.

The liaison was necessary because Britain's enemies were already present in the US and could expect sympathy and support from German and Italian immigrants, but the authorities there had no remit or interest in activities that were not directly against US security.[5]

Stephenson's report on the American situation advocated a secret organisation acting beyond purely SIS activities and covering all covert operations that could be done to ensure aid to Britain and an eventual entry of the US into the war. Stephenson was given this remit and the traditional cover of appointment as a 'Passport Control Officer' which he took up in June 1940. Although the existing setup in New York was lacking, in Stephenson could call upon his personal liaison with Hoover, the support of Canada, the British ambassador, and his acquaintances with US interventionists.


The office, which was established for intelligence and propaganda services, was headed by Canadian industrialist William Stephenson. Its first tasks were to promote British interests in the United States, counter Nazi propaganda, and protect the Atlantic convoys from enemy sabotage.

The BSC was registered by the State Department as a foreign entity. It operated out of offices in Rockefeller Center, and was officially known as the British Passport Control Office from which it had expanded. BSC acted as administrative headquarters more than operational one for SIS and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was a channel for communications and liaison between US and British security and intelligence organisations.[6]

BSC used a number of legitimate outlets for its work. In 1940, a German agent, Weldrick, who was cultivating support and possible sabotage among American oil companies, was effectively exposed through news articles placed in the New York Herald Tribune. A wave of public outrage was followed by Weldrick's expulsion from the US and the forced resignation of the head of Texaco. Through third parties, BSC developed the independent and non-profit WRUL shortwave radio station foreign-language broadcast capability and then fed it stories it wanted disseminated worldwide. The station had a large number of listeners who corresponded with the station, which made it possible for reactions to the broadcasts to be directly monitored. For a period, the station was unwittingly the agent of BSC; after the US entered the war, the WRUL operation was turned over to US control.

It was through the BSC that the British acquired the powerful "Aspidistra" transmitter that was used for propaganda by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), BBC overseas broadcasts and the RAF in the war against Germany. BSC also sourced a transmitter for it to communicate with the UK which was operated under the code name "Hydra" at BSC's training school, Camp X, in Whitby, Ontario.[7] Prior to and after the entry of the US into the war, Camp X was used to train US personnel.

Although the British and Americans were co-operating at the Prime Minister-President level at the time, the arrival of "British spies" in the United States infuriated J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and displeased the US Department of State.

Stephenson and Hoover did not see eye to eye but had cooperated in a number of operations against espionage activities by Nazi Germany in the US. The British hired Americans despite promising otherwise. The Americans who were recruited in the BSC were given British identification numbers beginning with the digits 4 and 8, apparently representing the 48 states.

The British novelist William Boyd, in a 2006 article for The Guardian,[8] stated that although the total number of BSC agents operating in the USA is unknown, he estimated the number to be at least "many hundreds" and had seen "the figure of up to 3,000 mentioned".

Noël Coward saw Stephenson, colloquially known as "Little Bill", at the end of July 1940 when on a world entertainment and propaganda tour. He wrote that the "suite in the Hampshire House with the outsize chintz flowers crawling over the walls became pleasantly familiar to me..." and that Stephenson "had a considerable influence on the next few years of my life". Stephenson offered him a job but was overruled by London.[9]

Counter-smuggling and "shipping security"

South America was an important neutral source of trade for the Axis forces; its importance would increase after the US entered the war. The Italian airline LATI operated a transatlantic service between Rome and Rio de Janeiro, which was a conduit for high value goods (platinum, mica, diamonds etc.), agents and diplomatic bags. London instructed BSC to do something about that.

The Brazilian government had connections to the airline through the President's son-in-law, and it was supplied, despite the US State Department protests, by Standard Oil in the US, making official channels ineffective. To curtail its activities, BSC decided that it had to be closed down by the Brazilians themselves; sabotage would be only a temporary inconvenience. Thus, BSC constructed a forged letter of such accuracy that its authenticity could not be questioned even under forensic examination. The letter purported to come from LATI's head office to an executive of the company stationed in Brazil. The contents included disparaging references to the Brazilian president and the US and implied connections with a fascist opposition party, the Party of Popular Representation. A "burglary" of the executive's house was followed by a photostat of the letter being placed with an American Associated Press reporter, who immediately took it to the American Embassy, which then showed the letter to President Getúlio Vargas. LATI's operations in Brazil were confiscated and its personnel interned. Brazil broke off relations with the Axis to join the Allies.[10]

To counter the carrying of high-value contraband goods to and from the Americas, BSC set up a network of observers on merchant ships. The agents were recruited from the crews (and pro-British masters) of the vessel and would report their observations, cargo manifests, and passenger lists to agents in port when they arrived. Together with agents watching docks at both ends, intelligence was gathered and ships or enemy agents could be intercepted while questionable crew blacklisted from employment by US and British lines. From autumn 1941, the BSC handed over control of observers on American vessels and ports to the US while retaining control of the remainder and close liaison with the new US handlers.

Notable employees

See also


  1. 1 2 William Boyd (19 August 2006), "The Secret Persuaders", The Guardian, retrieved 30 November 2013
  2. Macintyre, Ben (8 October 2006). "The Spy Who Raised Me". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  3. David Ignatius (1 October 1989). "'45 papers detail British spying in U.S.'". Toledo Blade. The Washington Post. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  4. Folkart, Burt A. (3 February 1989). "William Stephenson, 93; British Spymaster Dubbed 'Intrepid' Worked in U.S.". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  5. The Secret History of British Intelligence p.xxvi
  6. Davies MI6 and the Machinery of Spying pp 128, 131
  7. Davies, p137
  8. Boyd, William, "The Secret Persuaders", 19 August 2006
  9. Future Indefinite by Noel Coward, page 159, 194 (William Heinemann, London, 1954)
  10. BSC p288-290
  11. "The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington", 2008, Jennet Conan
  12. Dorril, Stephen (2002). Mi6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service. Simon & Schuster.


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