Top Secret

In early 2017, the United States government released findings from an investigation showing that Russian president Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, had ordered an unprecedented “influence campaign” involving disinformation and sophisticated computer hacking—the goal being to disrupt the previous fall’s American presidential election, tipping it in favor of Donald Trump.

Not long after, Loch Johnson’s phone rang. Johnson is a political science professor at the University of Georgia and, according to the New York Times, the “dean of American Intelligence Scholars.” He has written and edited more than thirty books on national security and served in senior staff positions on congressional intelligence and foreign relations committees. During the seventies, he played a key role investigating misdoings at the Central Intelligence Agency. 

Russian voices greeted him on the phone—TV producers, reporters, radio show hosts. One after another, they asked if they could interview him about the Russian disruption efforts. Johnson had a hunch they were after something else. “They were looking for me to come on there and say, ‘Well, the United States does this stuff all the time, so what’s the big deal if the Russians do it?’ ” he told me recently. 

In other words, they wanted to ask questions that the US media and outraged elected officials were either avoiding or unaware of—questions about US efforts, dating back decades, to disrupt elections and political agendas with sophisticated propaganda, including during America’s messy entanglements in Vietnam and Iraq. “This is a very important line of thought,” Johnson said. Still, he knew that saying so on Russian TV would make him a symbolic pawn. He declined.

But Johnson’s predicament is worth noting: as the US press has covered Russia’s meddling in American politics, a counternarrative, about information warfare waged by our own government, has gone largely ignored. In fact, American reporters, if they wanted, could build a credible case that Putin’s disinformation efforts, which often use the media as an unknowing accomplice, simply carry on a tradition honed in this country, going back decades.

 

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For the United States, the attraction of state-sponsored information warfare began not long after World War II ended. A key ally during the war, the Soviet Union was trying to position itself as a major world power. President Harry S. Truman, anxious to learn anything about and possibly disrupt the Soviets’ plans, had long been frustrated that there was no centralized system providing presidents with up-to-the-minute intelligence. “I have often thought,” he wrote in his memoirs, “that if there had been something like coordination of information in the government it would have been more difficult, if not impossible, for the Japanese to succeed in the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor.”

On July 26, 1947, Truman signed into law the sweeping intelligence legislation that created the CIA. Almost immediately, the agency swung into action in Italy, where polls showed Communists poised for victory in a presidential election. The CIA recruited sympathetic Italians with ties to journalists to slip pro-democracy articles into local newspapers. In addition, the government provided newsprint—then a scarce commodity—to pro-Western news organizations in the country. This was part of a broad propaganda campaign that also included a partnership with Hollywood producers to ensure that Greta Garbo’s film Ninotchka, a rollicking satire of Soviet life, would be shown in Italian movie theaters. The Communists lost.

In 1952, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Allen Dulles to head the CIA. During World War II, Dulles had been a crafty covert operative with a hand in some of the most sensitive operations in Europe, including an attempt to stop Adolf Hitler. Dulles became the most consequential director in CIA history, leading the agency for nine years. The Craft of Intelligence, his memoir, is catnip for spy recruits, journalists, and—presumably—Russians.

Early in his tenure, Dulles identified journalists as an important target for recruitment. “From his vantage point, the new media could help the intelligence community in two important ways,” Johnson wrote in America’s Secret Power, his 1989 book on the CIA’s methods for covert operations. One was general intelligence collection. The other was propaganda. “The press could provide cover for intelligence officers and assets abroad, as well as gather intelligence directly,” Johnson wrote. As for the foreign press, “they could serve as conduits for the dissemination of propaganda.”

The recruitment of journalists came to light in the mid-seventies, when the Church Committee, chaired by Frank Church, a senator from Idaho, opened a broad investigation into CIA misbehavior in Chile and other countries. Johnson, an investigator on the committee, discovered in reams of classified documents that there were numerous references to the CIA’s relationships with journalists. “I don’t think any of us expected to see this,” Johnson told me. “But there it was.” 

According to a 1975 Senate Intelligence Committee report, “Covert Action in Chile,” the CIA recruited “assets” in Chilean media organizations to write “articles or editorials favorable to U.S. interests in the world (for example, criticizing the Soviet Union in the wake of the Czechoslovakian invasion).” It also “suppressed news items harmful to the United States (for instance, about Vietnam) and authored articles critical of Chilean leftists.” Chaos in Chile ensued; the military there launched a coup; and Salvador Allende, the country’s leader and a target of the CIA’s disinformation efforts, killed himself.

American reporters, Johnson learned, were part of the strategy. Even today, it remains unlikely that their countrymen will ever know the extent of these journalists’ contribution to or involvement with the CIA. The Church Committee identified, though not by name or affiliation, that there were fifty American reporters working for the CIA from 1952 to 1956. In 1977, Rolling Stone published an investigation by Carl Bernstein, who reported that intelligence sources told him the number was more than four hundred. Soon after, the New York Times published its own story, a three-part series that began with this headline: “The CIA’s 3‐Decade Effort To Mold the World’s Views.” The agency, the Times reported, “channeled information and misinformation” through “newspapers, news agencies and other communications entities.” As many as a hundred journalists were paid upwards of $12,000 a year to provide information or plant propaganda in the foreign press, some of which made it back into US newspapers via wire services, a phenomenon that came to be known as blowback. 

The Times did not name the journalists involved, but it did identify news organizations—including ABC News, CBS News, Time, Newsweek, the Associated Press, and United Press International, as well as the Times itself. The Washington Post (my employer) was named, too, by former CIA director Stansfield Turner in his book Secrecy and Democracy (1985). In addition, the Times reported that news organizations regularly provided CIA operatives with press credentials. “At least a dozen full-time C.I.A. officers have worked abroad as reporters or non-editorial employees of American-owned news organizations,” the paper explained, “in some cases with the approval of the organizations whose credentials they carried.”

It remains unlikely that Americans will ever know the extent of journalists’ involvement with the CIA.

One of the only journalists ever to speak about his role as a CIA operative was Joseph Alsop. In 1953, Alsop—“then one of America’s leading syndicated columnists,” Bernstein wrote in Rolling Stone—went to the Philippines to cover an election. “He did not go because he was asked to do so by his syndicate,” Bernstein continued. “He did not go because he was asked to do so by the newspapers that printed his column. He went at the request of the CIA.”

What Alsop did in the Philippines isn’t entirely known, but his role, Bernstein reported, was similar to that of other journalists who did favors for the CIA—picking up intelligence wherever they could, slipping messages to agents, manipulating what appeared in the media. Alsop copped to what he had done. “I’m proud they asked me and proud to have done it,” he told Bernstein. “The notion that a newspaperman doesn’t have a duty to his country is perfect balls.” 

 

Almost immediately after Russia’s actions in the 2016 election were uncovered, the “hue and cry,” as Johnson puts it, led not just to a series of congressional investigations but also to a number of initiatives by think tanks and universities to identify and combat disinformation spread through social media. In examining these initiatives, it is nearly impossible to find any reference to offensive-minded US efforts in this area, past or present. 

Recently, I asked Alina Polyakova, of the Brookings Institution, about this subject. She’s the founding director of the Project on Global Democracy and Emerging Technology and an expert on disinformation. I wanted to know about similar behavior by the United States. At first she bristled: “Could you give me some examples?” she asked. 

I mentioned Italy. I mentioned Chile. I mentioned what Dulles said about recruiting journalists. I read her a paragraph from a classified document prepared in 2003 for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and later leaked to the media. Its title: “Information Operations Roadmap.” The paragraph I read came after a discussion of the importance of psychological operations (“psyop”) in warfare. One of the goals was this: “a psyop force ready to conduct sophisticated target-audience analysis and modify behavior with multi-media psyop campaigns featuring commercial quality products that can be rapidly disseminated.”

Polyakova asked me to send her the document, which I did. A few days later she replied. All she said was: “Very interesting.”

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Michael Rosenwald is a reporter at the Washington Post. He has also written for The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Economist. Follow him on Twitter @mikerosenwald.