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The CIA and the Press: When the Washington Post Ran the CIA’s Propaganda Network

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Image by Nathaniel St. Clair

Image by Nathaniel St. Clair

 

Last week, the Washington Post published a scurrilous piece by a heretofore obscure technology reporter named Craig Timberg, alleging without the faintest evidence that Russian intelligence was using more than 200 independent news sites to pump out pro-Putin and anti-Clinton propaganda during the election campaign.

Under the breathless headline, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” Timberg concocted his story based on allegations from a vaporous group called ProporNot, run by nameless individuals of unknown origin, whom Timberg (cribbing from the Bob Woodward stylesheet) agreed to quote as anonymous sources.

ProporNot’s catalogue of supposed Putin-controlled outlets reeks of the McCarthyite smears of the Red Scare era. The blacklist includes some of the most esteemed alternative news sites on the web, including Anti-war.com, Black Agenda Report, Truthdig, Naked Capitalism, Consortium News, Truthout, Lew Rockwell.com, Global Research, Unz.com, Zero Hedge and, yes, CounterPunch, among many others. I’ll have more on Timberg and ProporNot in my Friday column.

In the meantime, here is a brief historical note on how at the height of the Cold War the CIA developed it’s very own stable of writers, editors and publishers (swelling to as many as 3000 individuals) that it paid to scribble Agency propaganda under a program called Operation Mockingbird. The disinformation network was supervised by the late Philip Graham, former publisher of Timberg’s very own paper, the Washington Post. 

Craig Timberg’s story, which was about as substantial as anonymous slurs scrawled on a bathroom stall, lends rise to the suspicion that the Post may still be a player in the same old game it perfected in the 1950s and continued across the decades culminating in its 1996 hatchet-job on my old friend Gary Webb and his immaculate reporting on drug-running by the CIA-backed contras in the 1980s. The Post’s disgusting assault on Webb was spearheaded, in part, by the paper’s intelligence reporter Walter Pincus, himself an old CIA hand.

For Timberg, this was probably just another day at the office: fling some red slurs on the wall and see what sticks before moving on to his next big tech scoop (courtesy of hot tips from a couple of anonymous teenagers in Cupertino) on software glitches in the i-Phone 7.

For the subjects of hit-and-run journalism such as this, however, it’s often a different matter entirely. In Webb’s case, the Post’s deplorable and baseless attacks killed his career as an investigative reporter and sparked a spiraling depression that ended with Gary taking his own life. Although the CIA’s own inspector general, Frederick Hitz, later confirmed Webb’s reporting, the Post never retracted its slanderous stories or apologized for ruining the life of one of the country’s finest and most courageous journalists.

Now it appears that the paper is circling round for yet another drive-by.

(This article is adapted from our book End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate.) –JSC

Almost from its founding in 1947, the CIA had journalists on its payroll, a fact acknowledged in ringing tones by the Agency in its announcement in 1976 when G.H.W. Bush took over from William Colby that “Effective immediately, the CIA will not enter into any paid or contract relationship with any full-time or part-time news correspondent accredited by any US news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station.”

Though the announcement also stressed that the CIA would continue to “welcome” the voluntary, unpaid cooperation of journalists, there’s no reason to believe that the Agency actually stopped covert payoffs to the Fourth Estate.

Its practices in this regard before 1976 have been documented to a certain degree. In 1977 Carl Bernstein attacked the subject in Rolling Stone, concluding that more than 400 journalists had maintained some sort of alliance with the Agency between 1956 and 1972.
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In 1997 the son of a well known CIA senior man in the Agency’s earlier years said emphatically, though off the record, to a CounterPuncher that “of course” the powerful and malevolent columnist Joseph Alsop “was on the payroll”.

Press manipulation was always a paramount concern of the CIA, as with the Pentagon. In his Secret History of the CIA, published in 2001, Joe Trento described how in 1948 CIA man Frank Wisner was appointed director of the Office of Special Projects, soon renamed the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC). This became the espionage and counter-intelligence branch of the Central Intelligence Agency, the very first in its list of designated functions was “propaganda”.

Later that year Wisner set an operation codenamed “Mockingbird”, to influence the domestic American press. He recruited Philip Graham of the Washington Post to run the project within the industry.

Trento writes that

“One of the most important journalists under the control of Operation Mockingbird was Joseph Alsop, whose articles appeared in over 300 different newspapers.” Other journalists willing to promote the views of the CIA, included Stewart Alsop (New York Herald Tribune), Ben Bradlee (Newsweek), James Reston (New York Times), Charles Douglas Jackson (Time Magazine), Walter Pincus (Washington Post), William C. Baggs (Miami News), Herb Gold (Miami News) and Charles Bartlett (Chattanooga Times).

By 1953 Operation Mockingbird had a major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies, including the New York Times, Time, CBS, Time. Wisner’s operations were funded by siphoning of funds intended for the Marshall Plan. Some of this money was used to bribe journalists and publishers.”

In his book Mockingbird: The Subversion of the Free Press by the CIA, Alex Constantine writes that in the 1950s, “some 3,000 salaried and contract CIA employees were eventually engaged in propaganda efforts”.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

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