According to a batch of thirty year-old CIA documents released yesterday, the agency was—shock!—involved in “illegal and scandalous activities…wiretappings of journalists, kidnappings, warrantless searches and more” during the 1960s and 70s.
The journalists who had their curtains peeked into include Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jack Anderson and his staffers, Les Whitten and Brit Hume, while the agency conducted “personal surveillance” of Washington Post reporter Mike Getler, and others. None of this is particularly new, since evidence of these activities have been bouncing around in one form or another for years, but they still strike a nerve. Reading about these new revelations, I was reminded of much of what I’ve been reading in the galley of Tim Weiner’s upcoming book “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” which comes out later this summer. Weiner goes a long way in exposing the CIA’s fascination with reporters, particularly in the 1950s, when quite a few scribes were pretty cozy with the agency.
Weiner writes that Allen Dulles, the ruthless and often bumbling Director of Central Intelligence from 1953 to 1961, “kept in close touch” with the men who ran The New York Times and The Washington Post. “He could pick up the phone and edit a breaking story, make sure an irritating foreign correspondent was yanked from the field, or hire the services of men such as Time’s Berlin bureau chief and Newsweek’s man in Tokyo.”
What’s more, Dulles kept in close touch with the editors of Time, Look Fortune, the Saturday Review and Reader’s Digest, and “the most powerful executives of CBS News.” He managed to build a “propaganda machine that came to include more than fifty news organizations, [and a] dozen publishing houses.”
Kinda makes you think twice when people talk about the “golden age of journalism,” doesn’t it? Carl Bernstein—who has been in the news lately because of his new Hillary Clinton book—wrote a great piece for Rolling Stone back in 1977 claiming that CIA documents he reviewed showed that in the twenty-five years prior, “more than 400 American journalists…secretly carried out assignments for the CIA,” and that during the early part of the Cold War, “journalists provided a full range of clandestine services — from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go-betweens with spies in Communist countries.”
Again, none of this stuff exactly qualifies as breaking news, but it’s something that we should be reminded of every now and again when we get down on the quality of modern American journalism. For all the noise about journalists being “stenographers” for those in the government, things could be worse. Much worse. After all, there’s only one Fox News.