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Media Agents

U.S. journalism has been tapped by intelligence agencies.

by Vince Farinaccio

Information culled from the world of journalism was paramount for both British and American intelligence agencies during the Cold War but never more important than the realm of media as a pool from which potential agents could be drawn or into which spies could be planted.

One of the areas of CIA training in the 1950s included the craft of journalism so that its agents were better prepared for field work. The public was none the wiser at the time.

Louis Menand, in a January 2023 New Yorker piece, reported that “Revelations about the C.I.A.’s covert involvement in what were ostensibly non-governmental organizations began in 1966…One of the places was the news media. In 1977, Carl Bernstein published an article in Rolling Stone in which he claimed that more than 400 journalists had worked clandestinely for the C.I.A. since 1952. Major news organizations—Bernstein said that the ‘most valuable’ were the [New York] Times, CBS, and Time—gave credentials to C.I.A. agents to use as cover in foreign countries, sold outtakes from their reports to the agency, and allowed reporters to be debriefed by C.I.A. officials.”

Bernstein’s article, available online at the journalist’s website, reports that the CIA’s involvement with the press can be traced back to 1953 and that work was provided on either a voluntary or salaried basis.

In a sidebar, Bernstein debunks the myths that tend to surround journalism’s role in the realm of espionage, refuting the images we might have of reporters decoding ciphered messages and racing down foreign city streets trailed by enemy operatives. The picture he offers is more sedate, where what is required of an American “working undercover abroad is often to aid in the recruitment and ‘handling’ of foreign nationals who are channels of secret information reaching American intelligence. Many journalists were used by the CIA to assist in this process, and they had the reputation of being among the best in the business.”

But there were occasions when the CIA did not require reporters, only the businesses that employed them. Bernstein alleges that “from 1950 to 1966, about ten CIA employees were provided [New York] Times cover under arrangements approved by the newspaper’s late publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger.” In the case of CBS, “the network provided cover for CIA employees…” And Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, “readily allowed certain members of his staff to work for the Agency and agreed to provide jobs and credentials for other CIA operatives who lacked journalistic experience.”

Bernstein’s article was published on the heels of the previous year’s reports by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Sen. Frank Church, that made public the use of journalists by both the CIA and FBI. Alicia Upano’s 2003 article in The News Media and the Law identifies that the latter’s practice of agents impersonating reporters existed well before guidelines were established in 1992 to allow for such situations only with proper approval. She reports that “the FBI maintained ‘friendly’ news contacts which, the Church reports outline, were used to ‘squelch’ articles unfavorable to the FBI, postpone publication and plant articles, some of which aimed to discredit efforts such as the civil rights movement.”

As for the CIA, the Church Committee investigation and, one would like to think, the inquiry by Bernstein are what convinced the agency to bar using journalists, a regulation that, Upano notes, contained a loophole that allowed it “to use journalists under ‘extraordinary’ circumstances with the ‘specific approval’ of the CIA director. The loophole came to public attention in 1996, when the Washington Post exposed the waiver in the regulation’s language that few even knew existed.”

A year later, the Intelligence Authorization Act became law, removing the ban on the CIA’s use of reporters as long as those instances received Congressional and presidential approval.

Next Week: Tinker Tailor Reporter Spy

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