Don’t Be Fooled By the Trump Spat—The CIA Is Not Your Friend

A new book reminds us that the CIA is one of history’s great purveyors of fake news.

Branko Marcetic February 7, 2017

Donald Trump speaks during a visit to the CIA in Langley, Va., on January 21. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writ­ers, a his­to­ry of the CIA’s decades-span­ning attempts to co-opt and out­right recruit writ­ers and intel­lec­tu­als for its own ends, is the fruit of at least 15 years of research. Yet by some cos­mic hap­pen­stance, it’s only now being released, when it’s more rel­e­vant than ever.

Through covert funding and well-placed assets, the CIA helped create, keep alive and exert editorial control over a range of seemingly independent entities.

Joel Whitney’s book comes amidst weeks of CIA-dom­i­nat­ed head­lines as the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty butts heads with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump over alle­ga­tions he owes his vic­to­ry to — and is per­haps in the thrall of — the Krem­lin. After a heat­ed pub­lic exchange, Trump tried to make nice with the agency with a speech in front of the CIA memo­r­i­al in Lan­g­ley, Vir­ginia. Rather than pay­ing trib­ute to the agency’s fall­en, how­ev­er, he used the oppor­tu­ni­ty to crit­i­cize the media and insist on the tremen­dous size of his inau­gu­ra­tion audi­ence, leav­ing a sour taste in the mouths of some CIA per­son­nel.

All of this has led some pro­gres­sives to view the agency as a pos­si­ble sav­ior, an ally in oust­ing Trump. Pre­sum­ably tak­ing the stand­point that the ene­my of my ene­my is my friend, Democ­rats have sud­den­ly flipped from being at least rel­a­tive­ly crit­i­cal of the CIA and its over­steps to stal­wart­ly defend­ing the agency. At least one pro-CIA sign even made it into the mas­sive Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration.

It’s in this envi­ron­ment that Finks hits book­shelves, serv­ing as a time­ly refresh­er that the CIA is hard­ly to be trust­ed, and in fact has a long his­to­ry of using the press to shape pub­lic opinion.

Whit­ney out­lines how over 18 or so years, start­ing as ear­ly as 1948, the CIA, in con­cert with some of its for­eign coun­ter­parts, covert­ly fund­ed and direct­ed a host of pro­pa­gan­da ven­tures. While on their face, these projects — from lit­er­ary mag­a­zines and book series to films and stu­dent groups — appeared far from jin­go­is­tic, beneath the sur­face was a cam­paign to wage the Cold War on the sly, com­bat­ing anti-Amer­i­can­ism and spread­ing anti-Sovi­et, pro‑U.S. messages.

Through covert fund­ing and well-placed assets, the CIA helped cre­ate, keep alive and exert edi­to­r­i­al con­trol over a range of seem­ing­ly inde­pen­dent enti­ties. Some were explic­it­ly lib­er­al, like the Nation­al Stu­dent Asso­ci­a­tion in the late 1960s. Oth­ers, such as lit­er­ary mag­a­zines like Encounter and The Paris Review, were cloaked in a veneer of apoliti­cism that left read­ers unaware they were being sub­tly manip­u­lat­ed. In Latin Amer­i­ca, the CIA spon­sored more than half a dozen mag­a­zines for the pur­pose of covert­ly sway­ing local intel­lec­tu­als. The two things these mag­a­zines had in com­mon was that they tend­ed to defend US for­eign pol­i­cy at its most egre­gious, fac­ing cen­sor­ship when they didn’t, and that they learned to dis­guise this defense,” writes Whitney.

One of the CIA’s major projects was pub­lish­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing Boris Pasternek’s opus Dr. Zhiva­go, which had been banned by the Sovi­et Union for its por­tray­al of post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary dis­il­lu­sion­ment. The CIA did this not out of love for lit­er­a­ture, but because it would be a pro­pa­gan­da coup for the agency. When Paster­nak turned down the 1958 Nobel Prize for lit­er­a­ture for the nov­el, pre­sumed by many to be a result of Sovi­et pres­sure, the Paris Review—one of the sup­pos­ed­ly neu­tral lit­er­ary mag­a­zines fund­ed by the CIA and found­ed and run by its oper­a­tives — built an entire issue around the incident.

The CIA’s mis­sion was often one of soft pow­er,” well before the term ever exist­ed. The Con­gress for Cul­tur­al Free­dom (CCF) — the CIA front which fund­ed the Paris Review and oth­er mag­a­zines — paid up to three times the mon­ey for inter­views with Russ­ian writ­ers who it could use as anti-Com­mu­nist sym­bols. White, Russ­ian authors, Latin Amer­i­cans and East­ern bloc writ­ers filled the Review’s pages. By con­trast, black writ­ers — and the top­ic of seg­re­ga­tion — received next to no atten­tion form CCF-direct­ed mag­a­zines. The CCF also main­tained veto pow­er over arti­cles, ensur­ing that noth­ing viewed as over­ly crit­i­cal of or neg­a­tive toward Amer­i­can soci­ety would be published.

Whit­ney recounts how the CCF worked to under­mine the career of Chilean poet Pablo Neru­da, deemed an unac­cept­able cul­tur­al influ­ence for his left­ist views. Learn­ing that Neru­da was in the run­ning for the 1964 Nobel Prize for lit­er­a­ture, the CCF launched a smear cam­paign to dis­cred­it the poet. This cam­paign traumatize[d] those clos­est to Neru­da for decades,” Whit­ney writes, link­ing Neru­da to Stal­in and alleg­ing that he was involved in try­ing to assas­si­nate Trot­sky in 1940. At the same time, the CCF glad­ly used Neruda’s poet­ry for one of its Latin-Amer­i­can mag­a­zines, uti­liz­ing him to mask the CIA’s reac­tionary pol­i­tics even as the agency worked to destroy his life.

The CIA’s use of Neru­da was part of a broad­er approach of using large­ly left-wing writ­ers to car­ry out its bid­ding. Read­ers — along with many of the con­trib­u­tors them­selves — were unaware of the CIA ties of the var­i­ous enter­pris­es they were involved in, and that left-wing fig­ures were being used to dis­guise the Unit­ed States’ reac­tionary pol­i­tics with a more lib­er­al face,” as Whit­ney puts it. Colom­bian writer Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, one of those who had been unwit­ting­ly weaponized,” told his friend he felt like a cuck­old” when, in the mid-1960s, the New York Times revealed the CIA’s patron­age of dozens of lit­er­ary mag­a­zines, one of which—Mun­do Nue­vo—he had writ­ten for.

Oth­er par­tic­i­pants were more will­ing. At the cen­ter of Finks is the afore­men­tioned Paris Review, a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine found­ed in 1953 by Harold Doc” Humes, Peter Matthiessen and lit­er­ary dar­ling George Plimpton.

Matthiessen was even­tu­al­ly out­ed as a CIA asset, while Plimp­ton remained cagey through his final days on his exact con­nec­tion to the agency. Whit­ney draws on doc­u­ments, how­ev­er, that sug­gest Plimp­ton was well aware of the CIA’s role in the mag­a­zine he was run­ning. Humes was not. He was riv­en with (ulti­mate­ly jus­ti­fied) para­noia about being spied on, and the rev­e­la­tion of Matthiessen’s CIA ties con­tributed to his psy­cho­log­i­cal breakdown.

These are not the only famous names to make their appear­ance in the book as CIA employ­ees. Oth­ers include Irv­ing Kris­tol, father of Bill and a found­ing father of neo­con­ser­vatism; Arthur Schlesinger, the Kennedys’ court his­to­ri­an”; and William F. Buck­ley, Jr., pre-emi­nent con­ser­v­a­tive, TV per­son­al­i­ty and founder of the Nation­al Review.

There are also some tan­ta­liz­ing, less­er-known threads Whit­ney alludes to, though they deserve fur­ther pulling. These include the book’s coda, exam­in­ing Paris Review co-founder John Train’s role as a con­duit for CIA mon­ey in Afghanistan dur­ing the 1980s Sovi­et inva­sion, financ­ing var­i­ous pro­pa­gan­da ven­tures and embed­ding the media with sto­ries favor­able to the agency’s cho­sen narrative.

Anoth­er entic­ing diver­sion is a seg­ment on Oper­a­tion Chaos, for instance, a covert war on the inde­pen­dent anti­war press, with CIA agents infil­trat­ing mag­a­zines like the fem­i­nist, pro-LGBT anti­war paper Quick­sil­ver Times, and sow­ing dis­cord with­in them.

Oper­a­tion Mock­ing­bird, revealed by Carl Bern­stein in 1977, is also briefly men­tioned. Mock­ing­bird saw the CIA place agents and con­nec­tions in vir­tu­al­ly every major main­stream news out­let, going right to the top. Some, like the New York Times’ Arthur Sulzberg­er, signed secre­cy agree­ments with the agency, while oth­ers had more infor­mal, social ties to the agency that didn’t require legal doc­u­men­ta­tion. The CIA oper­at­ed a net­work of (by one esti­mate) 900 for­eign jour­nal­ists paid to spread pro­pa­gan­da any­where in the world at any time, pro­pa­gan­da which two for­mer agents claimed reg­u­lar­ly found its way into U.S. media.

While Whitney’s book ends in ear­ly-1980s Afghanistan, we know that such efforts con­tin­ued. In 1986, it was revealed that the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion had engaged in a decep­tion” cam­paign against 1980s-era bogey­man Moam­mar Gad­hafi, selec­tive­ly feed­ing the media with false infor­ma­tion — one might say, fake news — to make him believe he would be immi­nent­ly attacked by the Unit­ed States or even top­pled. This involved spread­ing false or exag­ger­at­ed reports about the dis­loy­al­ty of his under­lings or inter­nal oppo­si­tion with­in Libya. 

In Decem­ber 1991, a now-declas­si­fied CIA report not­ed the CIA’s deep con­nec­tions in the worlds of busi­ness, acad­e­mia and the media, includ­ing rela­tion­ships with reporters from every major wire ser­vice, news­pa­per, news week­ly and tele­vi­sion net­work” (the CIA’s empha­sis). This, the report boast­ed, allowed the agency to turn intel­li­gence fail­ure” sto­ries into intel­li­gence suc­cess” ones, plus post­pone, change, hold, or even scrap sto­ries that could have adverse­ly affect­ed nation­al secu­ri­ty interests.”

While it may be decades before we know the exact scope of the CIA’s col­lu­sion with the media today, there are sug­ges­tions that the agency con­tin­ues to enjoy a cozy rela­tion­ship with mem­bers of the media. In 2014, Ken Sil­ver­stein report­ed that one Los Ange­les Times reporter habit­u­al­ly sent drafts and sum­maries of his sto­ries to the CIA, assured the agency of pos­i­tive cov­er­age and wrote sto­ries that inten­tion­al­ly offered a pos­i­tive slant toward the agency. The CIA also reg­u­lar­ly invites reporters from the New York Times, the Wash­ing­ton Post, Fox News and NPR to its head­quar­ters for briefings.

Finks, then, is invalu­able read­ing mate­r­i­al in the present moment. It’s an excel­lent overview of the infor­ma­tion war launched and fought by the CIA since its incep­tion, and presents a detailed look into how such soft” pro­pa­gan­da was made and operated.

All of which brings us to the cur­rent stoush between the agency and Trump. At a moment when lib­er­als and Democ­rats raise the alarm over fake news,” yet hap­pi­ly run with sec­ond-hand tes­ti­mo­ny of intel­li­gence offi­cials or unver­i­fied rumors leaked to the press, Whitney’s work should pro­vide us with a sober­ing dose of cau­tion. Reports sug­gest the Trump cam­paign is cur­rent­ly being inves­ti­gat­ed for its alleged con­nec­tions to the Krem­lin, and per­haps at the end of it all we’ll see evi­dence that con­firms the most explo­sive alle­ga­tions are true. Until that time, we should think of Whitney’s book and remem­ber that intel­li­gence agen­cies have nev­er been strangers to using the press to manip­u­late pub­lic opinion.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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