Before Nixon: When JFK tapped the phone of a New York Times reporter

President-elect John F. Kennedy talking to news reporters the day before Kennedy's inauguration. (Photo by Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Nearly every president, and most serious candidates for that position, exhibit a love/hate relationship with the press. In the popular mind, John F. Kennedy expressed mainly the “love” part, partly due to his witty manner at frequent White House press conferences.  Actually, while displaying affection for a number of reporters, JFK was extremely critical of the media. In the second half of 1962 alone he tried to kill two NBC and CBS news specials. He even approved the wiretapping of a leading reporter for The New York Times (and a secretary in the newspaper’s D.C. bureau)–and then set in motion illegal CIA domestic surveillance embraced years later by Richard Nixon.  

President Kennedy’s order to the CIA to begin collecting intelligence on American reporters–shattering its own charter–was formalized as Project Mockingbird. In the spring of 1963, this resulted in the wiretapping of two columnists, Robert S. Allen and Paul Scott, after they allegedly revealed classified secrets. Other reporters were also monitored in this program until its end in 1965.

This  drama began with a front-page scoop in The New York Times on July 26, 1962, by chief military correspondent Hanson Baldwin, who revealed the Soviets were “hardening” their missile silos with concrete covers to protect nuclear weapons in the event of an American attack.  Top American officials kept this from the media and the public. Baldwin also revealed that US cameras were now capable from high in the sky of detecting such precise retrofitting, citing the new science of “image interpretation” based on infrared and radar images and electronic “emanations.”

The Soviets were sensitive to any sort of US spying, and now they would likely try to hide their missile sites from aerial view. Baldwin had also revealed the current number of nuclear missiles in the US arsenal which, he claimed, gave us a clear edge over the Soviets. Baldwin, 59, had joined the paper back in 1929 and won a Pulitzer for World War II reporting in the Pacific.

The White House quickly moved to find out who was behind the leak, with Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordering FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to take action. It wasn’t the first time RFK had approved such a step with the president’s knowledge. The previous year, Lloyd Norman wrote a piece for Newsweek based on classified information. FBI agents had monitored Norman’s home phone in Washington.

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This is an excerpt from Greg Mitchell’s new book, which is set to be published by Crown on Oct. 18.

Now, on July 27, just one day after the Baldwin scoop was published, agents tapped the phone of a secretary in The New York Times’ Washington office. The next day they bugged Baldwin’s home phone in Chappaqua, New York. At the same hour on the evening of July 30, FBI agents visited the DC apartment of the secretary and residence of the reporter. The startled secretary told them appointments Baldwin had recently made. When they left she called one of her bosses at the Times, who ordered her not to talk to the FBI further.

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When Baldwin answered the door in Chappaqua that same evening, he told the agents he did not like “this kind of approach.” He offered to talk with them at his office the next day, but he was so hostile they sensed this would be fruitless. After they left, Baldwin received a call from the highly influential Times editor and columnist James “Scotty” Reston–with the FBI listening in, of course. Reston informed him about the FBI’s visit with the secretary. He called it a witch hunt, an “outrage and we ought to print the whole thing.”

Baldwin concurred and said he would never name his sources. He suggested they contact the Times‘ publisher, Orville Dryfoos. “This is going very far in this administration–I think it is extremely dangerous,” he complained.

Reston said there was a feeling in Congress that “dossiers” were being kept on certain people. Baldwin agreed this was something new and advised, “I think the real answer to this is Robert Kennedy and the president himself–but Robert Kennedy particularly–putting pressure on Hoover.”

Reston suggested the Times could fight back by blowing the whistle:  “All it takes to deal with Kennedy [uncertain which one], who is essentially a politician and not cop, is for us to print the news….I propose, if you agree, after we know what more is in back of all this, merely to file a story, then if they [Times’ editors] want to take the responsibility of killing it, we’ll know where we are.”

Baldwin met with publisher Dryfoos and managing editor Turner Catledge  (with Reston on speaker phone) to consider exposing the administration’s assault on the free press.  They decided as a first step that Reston should call Kennedy aide McGeorge Bundy and extract full details on the scope of the FBI inquiry and who initiated it. That evening, Pentagon chief Robert McNamara stopped by Reston’s home. He claimed he knew nothing about the FBI probe in advance and apologized for the rough tactics. He also called the leak a “clear violation of the law,” without identifying which law.

***

On August 1, President Kennedy sat down with his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, including its chairman Dr. James Killian (president of M.I.T.), prominent lawyer Clark Clifford, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and Robert Kennedy. The subject: that high-level leak in The New York Times.  The meeting was recorded by JFK’s secret taping system.

JFK had approved the FBI probe and the taps on the phones of Baldwin and a Times secretary, but what was most on Kennedy’s mind was not nailing the leaker but preventing such disclosures in the future. Killian declared it was “the judgment of your board today that this is one of the most damaging unauthorized disclosures and leaks…a tragically serious breach of security.”

But how to expose the leaker?  The discussion quickly shifted from catching the culprit to policing the bureaucracy. Killian called for “unprecedented procedures” in light of the fact that leakers “have no real fear that any punitive action will be taken.” He advocated “drastic action” even if that “might result in adverse criticism temporarily,” from journalists and some in Congress. He advocated new policies to be adopted by the Department of Defense and other agencies that handled classified information. His proposal: After any interaction with the media, the staffer must file a memo with his superior revealing whom he talked to, and what was discussed.  

Kennedy asked: Why not just force the employee to get clearance before talking to the reporter? Killian replied that the media would yelp about pre-censorship (they might even compare it to Soviet-style controls). Better to allow interviews but discourage loose lips by holding a hammer over them.. 

“So the burden would be on the government rather than on the newspaperman,” Kennedy affirmed. 

Killian claimed, somewhat improbably, “We don’t see that the press could have an adverse reaction to this, at all.  Because this is none of their business….You are not interfering with their access to personnel.” But Killian was hardly finished.  He suggested a new office in the defense or intelligence fields, “an expert group that would be available at all times to follow up on security leaks.” Its very existence would create a “deterrent effect.”

Clark Clifford  urged that they go beyond investigating after the fact.  They should follow the pattern of leaks and the activities of certain journalists–over time becoming “pretty knowledgeable” about the reporters and who they were probably talking to: “There are many things that such a sensitized group could do that–they could follow the press and see evidence of…”

The president interrupted:  “That’s a very good idea.  We’ll do that.”  

Clifford elaborated: “Let’s then begin to get up a file on these different men…To my knowledge it’s never been done before and it is long overdue.”

Kennedy asked for a draft of a letter to Dryfoos written in such a way that it would “demonstrate that this is not an overly sensitive administration.”  Everyone laughed, as he probably intended, and the meeting broke up.

That was all right with the president, as he advocated requiring memos on conversations with any reporter. The press, Kennedy believed,  “are the most privileged group….They regard any action in this area as a limitation on their civil rights.  And they are not very used to it.”

Kennedy asked for a draft of a letter to Dryfoos written in such a way that it would “demonstrate that this is not an overly sensitive administration.”  Everyone laughed, as he probably intended, and the meeting broke up.

***

On August 6, revealing another strain of anti-press attitudes within the administration, Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, personally bullied CBS News–with the approval of the president–into killing a report by Daniel Schorr on a daring escape by East German citizens in a tunnel under the Berlin Wall.  The argument: This might exacerbate tensions between the US and the Soviets in the world’s most dangerous hot spot. (Schorr would remain angry about this for the rest of his life.)

The CBS coverage–a focus in my new book, The Tunnels–might have been quashed, but the Baldwin leak still occupied the president’s attention. On August 8, Kennedy forwarded his intelligence panel’s plan to monitor journalists to CIA director John McCone and others, and expected action to “protect our intelligence and our intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure.”

He also sent his promised protest letter to Times‘ publisher Dryfoos, but  closed without making an explicit threat against the Times.

That evening, the FBI recorded a lengthy phone conversation between Dryfoos and Baldwin. The reporter urged Dryfoos to insist to JFK that protecting sources is a “safeguard of the press” and “you don’t intend to violate it….” Dryfoos decided not to go public with an article on the FBI vs. The Times. The FBI phone taps, meanwhile, remained active. The bureau had conducted 125 interviews in its leak probe, while providing Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell with excerpts from transcripts, which were passed on to the president.  

***

On the evening of August 22, President Kennedy met with CIA Director John McCone and General Taylor at the White House. The meeting opened with an update on the new CIA office recommended by JFK’s intelligence panel.  The office shattered the CIA’s charter, under the National Security Act of 1947, which strictly forbade any intelligence activity within US borders.  McCone said that all high-level staffers who had access to sensitive material would have to write up a memo on every contact with the press and submit it to their superiors.  

Kennedy predicted that if the press ever learned of this, “I would think we are going to get some abuse,” but he was “delighted to take it on this issue.”  Kennedy added that it would have “a very inhibiting effect” on officials talking with nosy national security reporters, knowing they were expected to pen a memo about the interview. McCone pointed out that it could be set up so that the president would not look like he was “involved.” And so what became known as “Project Mockingbird” began.

On August 27, the FBI finally removed the tap on Hanson Baldwin’s home telephone.  Six weeks later, as I cover in my book, Kennedy and Rusk would again try to kill landmark coverage of a Berlin escape tunnel, this time by NBC, and succeeded in postponing the airing for seven weeks.

When declassified documents revealed Mockingbird’s existence in 2007, New York Times reporter Tim Weiner observed, “So now the record is clear: Long before President Nixon created his ‘plumbers’ unit of CIA veterans to stop news leaks, President Kennedy tried to use the agency for the same goal.” The Times separately noted: “By ordering the director of central intelligence to conduct a program of domestic surveillance, Kennedy set a precedent that Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and George W. Bush would follow.”

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Greg Mitchell is the author of The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill. He has written 10 previous books, including The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize. He was the editor of Editor & Publisher from 2001-2008.