How Americas Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up:
The CIA’s use of the American news media has been much more extensive than Agency officials have acknowledged publicly or in closed sessions with members of Congress. The general outlines of what happened are indisputable; the specifics are harder to come by. CIA sources hint that a particular journalist was trafficking all over Eastern Europe for the Agency; the journalist says no, he just had lunch with the station chief. CIA sources say flatly that a well‑known ABC correspondent worked for the Agency through 1973; they refuse to identify him. A high‑level CIA official with a prodigious memory says that the New York Times provided cover for about ten CIA operatives between 1950 and 1966; he does not know who they were, or who in the newspaper’s management made the arrangements.
The Agency’s special relationships with the so‑called “majors” in publishing and broadcasting enabled the CIA to post some of its most valuable operatives abroad without exposure for more than two decades. In most instances, Agency files show, officials at the highest levels of the CIA usually director or deputy director) dealt personally with a single designated individual in the top management of the cooperating news organization. The aid furnished often took two forms: providing jobs and credentials “journalistic cover” in Agency parlance) for CIA operatives about to be posted in foreign capitals; and lending the Agency the undercover services of reporters already on staff, including some of the best‑known correspondents in the business.
In the field, journalists were used to help recruit and handle foreigners as agents; to acquire and evaluate information, and to plant false information with officials of foreign governments. Many signed secrecy agreements, pledging never to divulge anything about their dealings with the Agency; some signed employment contracts., some were assigned case officers and treated with. unusual deference. Others had less structured relationships with the Agency, even though they performed similar tasks: they were briefed by CIA personnel before trips abroad, debriefed afterward, and used as intermediaries with foreign agents. Appropriately, the CIA uses the term “reporting” to describe much of what cooperating journalists did for the Agency. “We would ask them, ‘Will you do us a favor?’”.said a senior CIA official. “‘We understand you’re going to be in Yugoslavia. Have they paved all the streets? Where did you see planes? Were there any signs of military presence? How many Soviets did you see? If you happen to meet a Soviet, get his name and spell it right .... Can you set up a meeting for is? Or relay a message?’” Many CIA officials regarded these helpful journalists as operatives; the journalists tended to see themselves as trusted friends of the Agency who performed occasional favors—usually without pay—in the national interest.
“I’m proud they asked me and proud to have done it,” said Joseph Alsop who, like his late brother, columnist Stewart Alsop, undertook clandestine tasks for the Agency. “The notion that a newspaperman doesn’t have a duty to his country is perfect balls.”
From the Agency’s perspective, there is nothing untoward in such relationships, and any ethical questions are a matter for the journalistic profession to resolve, not the intelligence community. As Stuart Loory, former Los Angeles Timescorrespondent, has written in the Columbia Journalism Review: ‘If even one American overseas carrying a press card is a paid informer for the CIA, then all Americans with those credentials are suspect .... If the crisis of confidence faced by the news business—along with the government—is to be overcome, journalists must be willing to focus on themselves the same spotlight they so relentlessly train on others!’ But as Loory also noted: “When it was reported... that newsmen themselves were on the payroll of the CIA, the story caused a brief stir, and then was dropped.”
During the 1976 investigation of the CIA by the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Senator Frank Church, the dimensions of the Agency’s involvement with the press became apparent to several members of the panel, as well as to two or three investigators on the staff. But top officials of the CIA, including former directors William Colby and George Bush, persuaded the committee to restrict its inquiry into the matter and to deliberately misrepresent the actual scope of the activities in its final report. The multivolurne report contains nine pages in which the use of journalists is discussed in deliberately vague and sometimes misleading terms. It makes no mention of the actual number of journalists who undertook covert tasks for the CIA. Nor does it adequately describe the role played by newspaper and broadcast executives in cooperating with the Agency.
THE AGENCY’S DEALINGS WITH THE PRESS BEGAN during the earliest stages of the Cold War. Allen Dulles, who became director of the CIA in 1953, sought to establish a recruiting‑and‑cover capability within America’s most prestigious journalistic institutions. By operating under the guise of accredited news correspondents, Dulles believed, CIA operatives abroad would be accorded a degree of access and freedom of movement unobtainable under almost any other type of cover.
American publishers, like so many other corporate and institutional leaders at the time, were willing to commit the resources of their companies to the struggle against “global Communism.”
Accordingly, the traditional line separating the American press corps and government was often indistinguishable: rarely was a news agency used to provide cover for CIA operatives abroad without the knowledge and consent of either its principal owner, publisher or senior editor. Thus, contrary to the notion that the CIA insidiously infiltrated the journalistic community, there is ample evidence that America’s leading publishers and news executives allowed themselves and their organizations to become handmaidens to the intelligence services. “Let’s not pick on some poor reporters, for God’s sake,” William Colby exclaimed at one point to the Church committee’s investigators. “Let’s go to the managements. They were witting.” In all, about twenty‑five news organizations including those listed at the beginning of this article) provided cover for the Agency.
In addition to cover capability, Dulles initiated a “debriefing” procedure under which American correspondents returning from abroad routinely emptied their notebooks and offered their impressions to Agency personnel. Such arrangements, continued by Dulles’ successors, to the present day, were made with literally dozens of news organizations. In the 1950s, it was not uncommon for returning reporters to be met at the ship by CIA officers. “There would be these guys from the CIA flashing ID cards and looking like they belonged at the Yale Club,” said Hugh Morrow, a former Saturday Evening Post correspondent who is now press secretary to former vice‑president Nelson Rockefeller. “It got to be so routine that you felt a little miffed if you weren’t asked.”
CIA officials almost always refuse to divulge the names of journalists who have cooperated with the Agency. They say it would be unfair to judge these individuals in a context different from the one that spawned the relationships in the first place. “There was a time when it wasn’t considered a crime to serve your government,” said one high‑level CIA official who makes no secret of his bitterness.
“This all has to be considered in the context of the morality of the times, rather than against latter‑day standards—and hypocritical standards at that.”
The Agency’s relationships with journalists, as described in CIA files, include the following general categories:
■ Legitimate, accredited staff members of news organizations—usually reporters. Some were paid; some worked for the Agency on a purely voluntary basis. This group includes many of the best‑known journalists who carried out tasks for the CIA. The files show that the salaries paid to reporters by newspaper and broadcast networks were sometimes supplemented by nominal payments from the CIA, either in the form of retainers, travel expenses or outlays for specific services performed. Almost all the payments were made in cash. The accredited category also includes photographers, administrative personnel of foreign news bureaus and members of broadcast technical crews.)
Two of the Agency’s most valuable personal relationships in the 1960s, according to CIA officials, were with reporters who covered Latin America—Jerry O’Leary of the Washington Star and Hal Hendrix of the Miami News, a Pulitzer Prize winner who became a high official of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. Hendrix was extremely helpful to the Agency in providing information about individuals in Miami’s Cuban exile community. O’Leary was considered a valued asset in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Agency files contain lengthy reports of both men’s activities on behalf of the CIA.
O’Leary maintains that his dealings were limited to the normal give‑and‑take that goes on between reporters abroad and their sources. CIA officials dispute the contention: “There’s no question Jerry reported for us,” said one. “Jerry did assessing and spotting [of prospective agents] but he was better as a reporter for us.” Referring to O’Leary’s denials, the official added: “I don’t know what in the world he’s worried about unless he’s wearing that mantle of integrity the Senate put on you journalists.”
O’Leary attributes the difference of opinion to semantics. “I might call them up and say something like, ‘Papa Doc has the clap, did you know that?’ and they’d put it in the file. I don’t consider that reporting for them.... it’s useful to be friendly to them and, generally, I felt friendly to them. But I think they were more helpful to me than I was to them.” O’Leary took particular exception to being described in the same context as Hendrix. “Hal was really doing work for them,” said O’Leary. “I’m still with the Star. He ended up at ITT.” Hendrix could not be reached for comment. According to Agency officials, neither Hendrix nor O’Leary was paid by the CIA.
■ Stringers2 and freelancers. Most were payrolled by the Agency under standard contractual terms. Their journalistic credentials were often supplied by cooperating news organizations. some filed news stories; others reported only for the CIA. On some occasions, news organizations were not informed by the CIA that their stringers were also working for the Agency.
■ Employees of so‑called CIA “proprietaries.” During the past twenty‑five years, the Agency has secretly bankrolled numerous foreign press services, periodicals and newspapers—both English and foreign language—which provided excellent cover for CIA operatives. One such publication was the Rome Daily American, forty percent of which was owned by the CIA until the 1970s. The Daily American went out of business this year,
■ Editors, publishers and broadcast network executives. The CIAs relationship with most news executives differed fundamentally from those with working reporters and stringers, who were much more subject to direction from the Agency. A few executives—Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times among them—signed secrecy agreements. But such formal understandings were rare: relationships between Agency officials and media executives were usually social—”The P and Q Street axis in Georgetown,” said one source. “You don’t tell Wilharn Paley to sign a piece of paper saying he won’t fink.”
■ Columnists and commentators. There are perhaps a dozen well known columnists and broadcast commentators whose relationships with the CIA go far beyond those normally maintained between reporters and their sources. They are referred to at the Agency as “known assets” and can be counted on to perform a variety of undercover tasks; they are considered receptive to the Agency’s point of view on various subjects. Three of the most widely read columnists who maintained such ties with the Agency are C.L. Sulzberger of the New York Times, Joseph Alsop, and the late Stewart Alsop, whose column appeared in the New York Herald‑Tribune, the Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek. CIA files contain reports of specific tasks all three undertook. Sulzberger is still regarded as an active asset by the Agency. According to a senior CIA official, “Young Cy Sulzberger had some uses.... He signed a secrecy agreement because we gave him classified information.... There was sharing, give and take. We’d say, ‘Wed like to know this; if we tell you this will it help you get access to so‑and‑so?’ Because of his access in Europe he had an Open Sesame. We’d ask him to just report: ‘What did so‑and‑so say, what did he look like, is he healthy?’ He was very eager, he loved to cooperate.” On one occasion, according to several CIA officials, Sulzberger was given a briefing paper by the Agency which ran almost verbatim under the columnist’s byline in the Times. “Cycame out and said, ‘I’m thinking of doing a piece, can you give me some background?’” a CIA officer said. “We gave it to Cy as a background piece and Cy gave it to the printers and put his name on it.” Sulzberger denies that any incident occurred. “A lot of baloney,” he said.