You Can’t Trust the (Corporate) Press

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“We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things that the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”

Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, in a speech to CIA officials, 1988

Several high-profile writers and journalists have tried to tackle revelations of the CIA’s infiltration of the media in the aftermath of World War II until at least the early 1970s. However, like Gary Webb’s blockbuster stories in The San Jose Mercury News about the Agency’s forays into drug dealing in South and Cental America in the 1980s, the Agency’s involvement in the media in those times is not as well known as it should be.

At its peak, Operation Mockingbird included high-profile journalists, editors and most of the owners of the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time Magazine and all of the big three broadcast networks CBS, ABC and NBC. The Agency also bankrolled several leftist literary magazines including the prestigious Kenyon Review, as well as foreign periodicals, television and radio productions.

Some accounts from the time have a bumbling, Keystone Cops quality to them. The Louisville Courier Journal, covered at length by Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) in a long article in Rolling Stone in 1977 had a “reporter” named Robert H. Campbell who used to tell other journalists when they were drinking at a nearby bar that he was a CIA agent. This made some sense to the other reporters since his writing abilities appear to have been limited, as a former assistant city editor told Bernstein, “The stuff that Campbell turned in was almost unreadable.”

Other stories are more sinister. In Guatemala, during Operation PBSuccess in 1954, the Agency set up a radio station, “Voice of Liberation”, which claimed to be operating in the country’s remote jungle but was in fact broadcasting from Miami, using Guatemalan immigrants for its “reporting”. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_PBSUCCESS#Psychological_warfare) The station unnerved the country and its military and played a significant role in creating the coup that deposed elected President Jacobo Arbenz, who was removed from office by a relatively small group of right-wingers. 

In an interesting side note, then CIA Director Allen Dulles was also the former President of the United Fruit Company which controlled more than a third of the land in the country and whose operations Arbenz intended to nationalize.

The Cold War with the Soviet Union was just beginning when this program was initiated and many of those recruited, a large number of whom were unpaid for their services, believed that helping the intelligence community was their patriotic duty. A lot of what was done by actual journalists, handing over footage or providing descriptions of people they met through their work, might seem pretty innocuous in the mass surveillance environment that has emerged over the last few years. The majority were legitimate reporters, but the example of Campbell offers proof that there were plants as well.

As Bernstein’s Rolling Stone piece makes clear, journalists were some of the most useful assets for the Agency because their work usually involves getting close to powerful people and asking them questions; the problem is, once there is suspicion that American media might also be intelligence agents it can turn innocent reporters into targets. It may seem conspiratorial but this is probably one of the main reasons this story has never really had legs and was only a footnote to the Church Committee’s investigations into the practices of American intelligence agencies in the mid-1970s.

A Different Bird?

After then, CIA Director William Colby took most of the heat for the massive scandals of the 1970s, he was replaced by future president George H.W. Bush, who claimed that the Agency got out of the journalism business and, barring hard evidence to the contrary, we may have our suspicions but they must remain that. What’s interesting is there is usually still a tight consensus in the corporate media when it comes to the news that gets reported. Mainstream journalists cheered the 2009 coup in Honduras almost as much as journalist/agents hailed the 1954 coup in Guatemala, both times following Washington’s lead, when they reported the story at all.

When you look at the really big scoops in The NYT or Washington Post about government over the last few years you realize that most of them were brought forward by whistle-blowers, many of whom are now in prison or exile. There was some impressive investigative reporting being done at the Times by James Risen, whose work exposing the CIA’s plots to damage Iran’s nuclear program and his work on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping of American citizens the paper refused to publish citing “national security” concerns brought by government officials, so he went on to put them in book form, creating many problems for himself in the process.

A colleague of Risen’s at the Times was Judith Miller, who didn’t need to work for an intelligence agency to covet access to the people running them. A top reporter at the paper who, in the run-up to the Iraq War, wrote story after story quoting unnamed official sources as well as anonymous sources in the Iraqi opposition brought to her by Ahmed Chalabi of the exile group, the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi is still wanted in Jordon for embezzlement from his own bank and may have been an Iranian double agent the whole time he was feeding Miller misinformation.

Not only did Miller’s sources talk at length about non-existent WMDs, at least one of them also spread the infamous aluminum tube story that led many people to believe that Saddam’s Ba’ath regime was building nuclear weapons. She also seemed to have now disgraced General and former CIA Chief David Petraeus on speed-dial while she was embedded with the military unit fruitlessly searching for the WMD that she’d written so breathlessly about in the lead up to the war.

In fairness, the people who seem to have been providing Miller with a lot of her scoops were not CIA but from the Office of Special Plans, a group even closer to the President’s inner circle. This unit of the Pentagon was created by neo-conservative ideologues Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith to supply the intelligence about Saddam’s Iraq that the Administration wanted, regardless of evidence to the contrary. One of their main sources seems to have been, you guessed it… Ahmed Chalabi. The effort was heavily criticized by the rest of the intelligence community with one former CIA officer telling the Scottish Sunday Herald that the OSP, “lied and manipulated intelligence to further its agenda of removing Saddam”

Miller’s stories created a weird feedback loop wherein members of the Bush Jr. Administration went on the Sunday talk shows and used her NYT stories to prove the necessity of the invasion. In a sense, they were offering up the “leaks” made by people in their own administration to make the case for war to an already frightened public. Shortly thereafter, Iraq turned into a disaster and when the promised weapons weren’t found the NYT ended Miller’s tenure at the paper. Many said it was unlikely that she would ever work as a journalist again. They probably forgot to take note of the fact that she still had powerful friends.

Rather than being doomed to reporting local news for some small town weekly, Miller has moved on to write editorials for the Wall Street Journal, occupied a contributor’s chair at Fox News and perches at the American Enterprise Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations. Just last year she made the rounds of the talk show circuit promoting her book, “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey”.

Although she faced some tough questions, most of them from a certain comedian, by the end of her book tour it seemed like her image had been rehabilitated This despite the fact that she had remained sarcastic about rather than apologetic for her reportorial sins. That someone who made the “errors” that Judith Miller did in helping to move the country toward a disastrous war is still celebrated in many quarters of the establishment shows how far the profession of journalism has fallen since access to anonymous official sources became the name of the game.

The Next Frontier

In many ways, the culture of the CIA is very similar to that of corporate America. As ex-Agent Philip Agee said in a 1975 interview, “To the people who work for it, the CIA is known as The Company. The big business mentality pervades everything. Agents, for instance, are called assets… American multinational corporations have built up colossal interests all over the world, and you can bet your ass that wherever you find U.S. business interests, you also find the CIA.”

An interesting twist on this is that many corporations are now engaging in traditional intelligence activities themselves. In fact, the story comes full circle when you consider that Kroll Inc., a private investigation and risk consultancy firm based in New York, tried to hire journalist Mary Cuddehe to work as a corporate spy protecting the interests of Chevron in Ecuador where a company they now owned, Texaco, had spilled some 330 million gallons of oil around Lago Agio, with massive health effects on the surrounding population.

Their logic in trying to “recruit” Cuddehe was familiar, “with one Google search, anyone could see that I was, in fact, a journalist. If I went to Lago Agrio as myself and pretended to write a story, no one would suspect that the starry-eyed young American poking around was actually shilling for Chevron.” It seems that some multi-nationals are already engaging in Mockingbird-like operations of their own.

A couple of years later, the hack of Stratfor, a private intelligence company, revealed even more about these private intelligence shenanigans, often targeted at non-profit and activist groups. Among many things that were exposed by the hack was, “that Dow Chemical had hired the firm to surveil and low-level harass activists speaking out about the Bhopal disaster and that Coca-Cola employed Stratfor to spy on PETA activists.” Obviously, these companies are, if nothing else, major advertisers, so the revelations of the hack were mostly covered on the web and in the alternative press, rather than in the corporate media.

From coups in the 20th century to domestic crackdowns on groups like Occupy Wall Street today, authorities and big business have always been joined at the hip. As these same companies take on the functions of intelligence agencies, besides working alongside them, the world is quickly becoming a much scarier place for dissenters, adversarial journalists included.

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