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30 September, 2011
A recent article in Wired has once again brought attention to the issue of the CIA’s relationship to mainstream media in the United States.
The article, entitled “The CIA Pitches Scripts to Hollywood,” highlights the CIA’s Public Affairs Office’s “Entertainment Industry Liaison,” an office that works with writers, producers and showbiz execs to develop scripts and stories, provide tours of CIA Headquarters, and arrange interviews with agents about their background. As the Wired article points out, the office also provides ideas for stories about the Agency and its assets for those who are looking for the material for a spy thriller.
Although the thought of the CIA working hand-in-hand with Hollywood and the publishing industry to provide officially sanctioned agency yarns is unsettling to many, the entertainment liaison position has been around for years and the topic of how the CIA has worked to furnish the creators of Hollywood films like Charlie Wilson’s War with their (inaccurate) take on the agency’s history has been explored in depth.
What is even more disturbing than the agency’s whitewashing of its own history and methods in works of fiction, however, is the less closely examined relationship of the CIA to the news media. It is uncontested fact that the CIA has enjoyed a long and intimate relationship with some of the largest news organizations in the world, and has used this relationship to manipulate, censor, and even fabricate news stories in support of its own covert agenda.
The story of that relationship was told most famously and most comprehensively by Carl Bernstein in Rolling Stone magazine in 1977. In his landmark article, entitled “The CIA and the Media,” Bernstein outlined the history of the agency’s use of assets in the news media from the 1950s through the 1970s.
The ties between the intelligence community and the news organizations were formalized at the highest levels of management and ownership, and included, according to Bernstein, cooperation with media tycoons like Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times, Henry Luce of Time Inc. and William Paley of CBS. Towards the end of his career, Sig Mickelson, the head of CBS News in the 1950s and the man credited with launching the career of “the most trusted man in America”, Walter Cronkite, admitted that CBS News worked closely with the CIA.
The Bernstein article drew heavily on the findings of the Church Committee of 1975 and 1976—a Congressional investigation into the actions of the intelligence community—to identify the various types of associations between the CIA and the media, from legitimate, accredited reporters who worked with the agency or carried out tasks on its behalf, often on a volunatary basis, to stringers and freelancers directly on the agency payroll, to columnists and commentators like C.L. Sulzberger of the New York Times and the Alsop Brothers of the Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek, who could be counted on to insert agency friendly comments and editorials into leading news outlets, thus effectively setting the agenda for the national media.
The Church committee exposed some of the dirt of the CIA’s interference in domestic media, officially established as Operation Mockingbird by Frank Wisner, the director of the agency’s covert intelligence branch, the Office of Special Projects in 1948. However, when the committee began asking more specific, and more potentially damaging questions, the CIA, then under the leadership of George H.W. Bush, issued a blanket statement that it would stop directly employing journalists, and quietly directed the committee to change the focus of its inquiry.
Over the years, numerous specific examples of the agency’s manipulation of the news media have surfaced, including multiple instances where stories that had been outright fabricated by CIA assets had resulted in the justification for military intervention.
In the 1980s, for instance, a story about Russian MIGs being delivered to Nicaragua appeared on the front page of the New York Times. As CIA analyst turned whistleblower, David Macmichael, later revealed, this had been completely made up, but was reported as fact as a way of manipulating public opinion to support US intervention in the region.
In an infamous story from the 1970s revealed by CIA whistleblower John Stockwell, a story about rapes committed by Cuban soldiers in Angola which was widely reported around the world had in fact been completely made up by CIA assets in the press.
Similarly in Libya this year, shortly after Obama admitted the presence of covert operatives on the ground in Libya—identified as CIA agents by the New York Times—with the admitted goal of destabilizing the Gadhafi government, a story surfaced about Gadhafi’s troops that was immediately picked up and reported unquestioningly by nearly every news outlet in the world: that Gadhafi supplied his troops with Viagra to encourage them to rape their fellow Libyans.
It was later admitted that there was in fact no evidence whatsoever to back up these assertions, but that news was not heralded with anything near the same attention that the original accusations had garnered.
It is universally understood that such operations still take place, but without whistleblowers and insiders exposing the truth it is impossible to tell exactly what stories in our own day and age have been completely fabricated by intelligence agencies with a vested interest in manipulating public opinion.
We can see the tentacles of the CIA when it steps in to attempt to stop the publication of certain stories, however, as when the agency threatened independent documentary filmmakers John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski from publishing the names of two recently identified CIA agents, Alfreda Frances Bikowsky and Michael Anne Casey. The two were threatened with legal action should they publish the names of Bikowsky and Casey under a law preventing the naming of CIA analysts that has never in history been applied to journalists who discovered such information in the public record, as Duffy and Nowosielski did.
Earlier this week, Washington Post national security correspondent Joby Warrick confirmed on the Peter B. Collins podcast that the Post knew about the identity of Bikowski for years, but had held off on publishing the story at the behest of the CIA.
It is no longer disputed that the CIA has maintained an extensive and ongoing relationship with news organizations and journalists, and multiple, specific acts of media manipulation have now been documented. But as long as the public continues to ignore the influence of intelligence agencies in shaping or even fabricating news stories, the agency will continue to be able to set the policy that drives the American war machine at will.