Facebook and Twitter have acquired reputations as the Boris and Natasha of our day, spreading fake news the way British colonists handed out smallpox-infested blankets to Indians. Yet disinformation is a lot older than social media.
Modern Americans could also be forgiven for thinking the 2016 election was the first time a foreign country made an organized attempt to affect a stateside political outcome. But in fact, we've spent decades swimming in false stories spread by governments from Moscow to London (and, for that matter, Washington). Journalists have frequently served as those governments' partners in their propaganda and espionage efforts—sometimes unwittingly and other times with full intent.
Bits and pieces of this reality have emerged via news reports, particularly some 1970s stories by John Crewdson in The New York Times and Carl Bernstein in Rolling Stone. Last year, just before Thanksgiving, the Louisville Courier-Journal had an unusual scoop: One of its own reporters in the mid-1960s had been a full-time CIA officer, hired by a newsroom boss with full knowledge that his new city desk inkslinger had a secret identity. But nobody has pried as many horrifying, hilarious details out of Washington journalism's secret cloak-and-dagger side as Steven T. Usdin in his new book, Bureau of Spies: The Secret Connections Between Espionage and Journalism in Washington (Prometheus Books).
It turns out American reporters spied for the CIA. They spied for the Soviets. And they spied for the British—boy, did they spy for the British, helping them nudge us into World War II, unseat an isolationist congressman, and riddle the U.S. media with fake news.
Usdin has written a good bit about espionage, including 2005's Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley, the story of a couple of members of the Rosenberg atomic spy ring. With Bureau of Spies, he's not just written history but established a broader context for the accusations of fake news that fly around Washington today—a context that a lot of journalists may not find entirely pleasant.
Though it covers seven decades of clandestine journalistic hoodoo, Bureau of Spies is at its liveliest in the 10 or 15 years around World War II, a time when the National Press Building—and especially its bar—"came to resemble Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca," Usdin writes. Reporters, spooks, and spook-reporters from Japan, Great Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union, and the U.S. would slink through the halls and huddle over drinks, swapping and stealing secrets.
In 1940, the British—already at war with Germany and not faring well—set up an intelligence office in Washington intended to nudge the United States away from neutrality and into open support for London. It did so mainly by planting falsified stories in the mainstream American news media. The British Security Co-ordination (BSC) was the Russian troll farm of its day—in Usdin's words, a place where government agents could "craft lies, inject them into news feeds, and then track them as they fly around the globe" (or as the young folks say, post clickbait).
England's spooks were far from operating on their own. In addition to a wink and a nod from President Franklin Roosevelt, who knew about the BSC and ordered the FBI to leave it alone, the Brits benefited from a compliant Washington press corps.
"Scores—perhaps hundreds—of American journalists who believed that fighting fascism justified unethical and, at times, illegal behavior, cooperated with British intelligence in 1940 and '41," Usdin writes. They filled U.S. newspapers and radio stations with fake stories, many of them about anti-interventionist U.S. politicians. One congressman, Republican Hamilton Fish of New York's Hudson Valley, lost his seat after four years of dirty tricks and fabricated stories. Fish, in an angry concession speech, said his loss "should largely be credited to Communists and Red forces from New York City." As the author of a secret history of BSC operations in America noted, "he might—with more accuracy—have blamed BSC."
The journalists in the BSC's pocket were by no means scuffling freelancers or marginal hacks. Some of the fake stories the Brits used to batter Hamilton Fish were written by Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen, whose syndicated column ("The Washington Merry-Go-Round") was among the most widely read in America. Another British beguilee, Edgar Ansel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News, had won a Pulitzer in 1933 for covering Hitler's rise to power. By 1940 he was writing, at British behest, a wildly paranoid series of stories suggesting there were German spies hiding under every bed west of Berlin.
Eventually, the BSC's journalistic adventures grew so extensive that the Brits needed a more sophisticated cover for them. Thus was born in 1940 the Overseas News Agency (ONA), a corporate cousin to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wire service. The ONA ostensibly covered Europe's ethnic-minority communities in a straight-arrow, just-the-facts fashion. Actually, it was substantially bankrolled by British intelligence, and many of its reporters were BSC spies. They gathered intel for their London bosses (who offered to share their reports with the FBI, which wasn't interested) and wrote lurid propaganda for their editors, notably including that the German army was rounding up women by the trainload in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and sending them back to the Reich, where "they will be entrusted with the important work of amusing German soldiers, in order to keep up the morale of the troops."
One of the ONA's biggest guns was a syndicated anti-Nazi columnist named Harry Hart Frank. When the war was over, he adopted the pen name Pat Frank and wrote a series of marvelously paranoid Cold War novels, including Alas, Babylon (small Florida town struggles to survive a nuclear war) and Forbidden Area (Russian moles plot to ground the U.S. Air Force and enable a Soviet nuclear first strike). His work for the ONA was just as compulsively readable and just as thoroughly fictional, including stories that France's Vichy government was turning Martinique and Haiti into Nazi military strongholds from which raids could be launched on the Panama Canal, Puerto Rico, and even Miami.
Other ONA stories were more optimistic, particularly one in which Free World astrologers confirmed that the death of a 130-year-old Bedouin fortune-teller was "a sign of a coming defeat for Hitler." (The Brits also sponsored a 1941 U.S. tour by the Hungarian "astro-philosopher" Louis de Wohl, who passed along signs from the stars that Hitler was on a downhill slide. De Wohl came with an impressive résumé—he was chums with Goebbels' personal astrologer.)
Some of the disinformation spread by the ONA and other British intelligence organs would echo through history. BSC files show it spent a lot of time manufacturing the first rumors about Hitler's supposedly crumbling sanity, including "an uncontrollable fear that his mustache is growing more and more like Stalin's, and he has it shaved every morning much closer than usual."
Soon the New York Post printed a story saying Hitler's doctors were in Switzerland consulting with Carl Jung. The Soviet news agency TASS picked up the story, which caught the eye of British papers, and a United Press International (UPI) reporter in London sent it back to Washington. Multiple-source confirmation that Hitler was barking mad! Though Usdin doesn't say so, it's easy to imagine that the bit about the mustache inspired, a quarter of a century later, one of the CIA's signature works: an attempt to discredit Fidel Castro by making his beard fall out. (Somewhat less effective: a BSC attempt to spread a rumor that military rations were causing a wave of impotence among German soldiers.)
In 1940, the British set up an intelligence office in Washington intended to nudge the U.S. away from neutrality in the war by planting falsified stories in the American media.
Useful as the ONA was for getting stories into the U.S. media, there often was no need for cutouts or shell games to trick American reporters into doing the Brits' work. The BSC wrote up an entire series of stories on France's alleged espionage activities in the United States, then gave it to New York Herald Tribune reporter Ansel E. Talbert. The series, published under his name, appeared in about a hundred American papers and won Talbert a congratulatory letter from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. "Talbert didn't tell him that his biggest contribution to the series was lending his byline," notes Usdin.
The British were not the only ones who found reporters an easy way into American secrets. Using its wire service TASS as a (very thin) front, Usdin writes, Soviet intelligence by 1941 had recruited 22 U.S. journalists into espionage. Only engineers, crucial to Russian efforts to acquire U.S. military technology, were a more fertile source for Moscow.
Among the 22 was Robert Allen, who with partner Drew Pearson would later plant British-manufactured fake news in their popular column. Even if you think that realpolitik justified Allen's work for the Brits, his collaboration with the Soviets cannot be explained as anything other than pure venality.
Allen began passing secrets to the USSR in 1933, long before they became U.S. wartime allies. (The Russian agency he worked with was known then as OGPU, the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs. It's one of several names Soviet intelligence used and abandoned: Cheka, GPU, NKVD, KGB—a malign alphabet soup that even Vanna White couldn't have kept up with. I'll use KGB for all of them, since the grim essence of their work never changed, even if their names did.) KGB records show that Allen made $100 a month from Moscow, which sounds like peanuts but was actually double what he took home from his syndicated column. For that, he supplied the Soviets with early tips on news he was reporting, including the fact that the newly elected Roosevelt planned to extend formal diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union for the first time.
Such political gossip, even if not top secret, was extremely useful to Stalin's regime—and a pre-CIA Washington had no comparable source on what was going on in the far more secretive Kremlin. "At a time when the United States had almost no capacity to collect or analyze foreign political intelligence and the Kremlin was a black box to American policy makers, men in the [KGB headquarters] were privy to a private conversation between two U.S. senators revealing a controversial, secret policy decision made by America's next president," Usdin writes.
Allen passed along more than just Capitol chatter. He was well-sourced at the Office of Naval Investigations, then the leading U.S. military intelligence outfit, and he kept the Soviets up to date on American spying against Moscow's enemy Japan, including the news that four U.S. agents disguised as Malayan fishermen had discovered extensive Japanese military fortifications in the Marshall Islands.
The last known evidence of Allen's espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union dates to February 1933. But it would have been easy for the Soviets, holding enough blackmail ammunition to ruin his career and even put him in jail, to forcibly reactivate Allen at any time—including the years during World War II when he left journalism to serve as an intelligence officer for General George Patton in Europe.
Other well-known names in American journalism flirted with the KGB, sometimes without even knowing it. The relationship between reporter and source is peculiar and multidimensional—each side is, to some extent, extracting information from the other—and when the source is a spy, it can be extremely difficult to figure out who is getting the better of the deal.
I speak from experience here. Working on a story about a rogue Texas cop who may also have been a narcotrafficker, I some years back called the CIA to ask if it had ever worked with an Indonesian air-cargo service that once employed him. Well, let me see what I can do for you, said the public information officer. But first, let me just get some information so I know we're all on the same page. This cop you're writing about: What's his name? What's his age? What's his last known address? The questions went on for 20 minutes or so, until the CIA man said, "I think that about covers it. So, the CIA doesn't comment on possible intelligence matters. Thanks for offering us the opportunity, though." After that, I'm more than willing to believe Usdin's conclusion that Washington columnist and New Republic co-founder Walter Lippman was never a witting KGB agent, despite considerable appearances to the contrary.
Any discussion of Lippman and the KGB needs to start with some caveats. The first and most obvious is that it's neither a crime nor bad journalism for a reporter to talk to a spy. Spies may lie to you and almost certainly will try to spin you, but that's true of practically anybody who works for a government. Spies have a lot of information—collecting it is their job, after all—and it makes good sense to try to get them to share some of it. Second, it is entirely possible for a reporter, no matter how good, to talk to an intelligence operative without being aware of it. In 20 years covering Latin America, only once or twice did I meet anybody who announced, "Hi, I'm a spy." Mostly they are under a cover carefully constructed to fool people like journalists. Largely, they succeed.
So the fact that Lippman fluttered around KGB men in Washington doesn't necessarily imply anything negative. He would have been interested in their knowledgeable commentary on Soviet foreign policy, and they would have found almost anything he had to say extremely useful. Lippman was not only an influential journalist but a courtier to Washington's foreign policy establishment, and he was an obvious target for Soviet cultivation on just about any level. Nuggets about his close association with Russian spooks have been emerging for years, and Bureau of Spies piles them higher than ever.
The KGB in 1941 recruited Lippman's secretary, Mary Price, who applied herself to espionage with Stakhanovite zeal. "For two years, she rifled his files, eavesdropped on his conversations and scanned his correspondence, passing on anything of interest" to Moscow, Usdin writes. When an exhausted Price quit the clandestine life to become an open Communist, the KGB kept in close touch with Lippman through Vladimir Pravdin, the TASS Washington bureau chief and, in Usdin's description, "a trained and hardened intelligence operative." The two men met so frequently that Pravdin, in his reports back to his KGB bosses, referred to their conversations as their "usual talks."
The bureau chief's cables to Moscow make it clear that Lippman didn't know he was talking to a KGB officer; he just thought he was chatting up a good source on the Soviet Union. And indeed, Pravdin could have delivered some thrilling scoops had Lippman known the right questions to ask. Among Pravdin's previous assignments were stalking Stalin's enemy Trotsky and murdering an old Bolshevik who had fallen from Stalin's favor.
But Lippman was less concerned with his workaday newspaper readers than his foreign policy chums, to whom he reported as least as slavishly as Pravdin did to the KGB. After one long meeting between the two in May 1944, Lippman passed along what he had learned about Soviet territorial ambitions in Manchuria to senior State Department officials, while Pravdin cabled Moscow about squabbles between Churchill and Roosevelt over the forthcoming Allied invasion of France, U.S. military progress in Asia, and senior FDR adviser Averill Harriman's thinking about Soviet plans for Japan.
Soviet intelligence by 1941 had recruited 22 U.S. journalists into espionage. Only engineers, crucial to Russian efforts to acquire U.S. military technology, were a more fertile source.
Pravdin was just one of several KGB men with press cards offering blandishments to American journalists. It's not exactly shocking that Vladimir Romm, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the official Soviet daily Izvestia, was working for Russian intelligence. What is a little surprising is how easily he mesmerized American journalists, who had no clue at all that Romm was a spy, much less that he had helped administer the Stalin-engineered famine in the Ukraine that starved millions of peasants to death.
"Romm was a living embodiment of Americans' fantasy of Soviet Man: erudite, charming and selfless," writes Usdin. Even the everyman columnist Ernie Pyle was spellbound. "He speaks softly in a low voice," Pyle told his readers. "He doesn't try to sell Russia to you."
The columnist was, no doubt, one of the many Washington newsmen who were shocked when Romm, two years later, was arrested as a Trotskyite saboteur who was plotting to overthrow Stalin. Revealing their utter cluelessness about the way the Soviet Union worked, a group of American reporters, including some from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press, cabled Moscow to explain that there must be some mistake: "He did more than any other Soviet envoy to popularize the Stalin regime in this country."
Romm soon confessed to everything he was charged with—he would eventually be executed, his wife sent to a Siberian work camp, and his son sent to an orphanage—and then testified in one of the show trials in which Stalin was purging all his enemies, real and imagined. Walter Duranty, the notoriously fawning and bafflingly influential Moscow correspondent of The New York Times (who won a Pulitzer for dispatches denying the existence of that 1933 Ukrainian famine that Romm and his colleagues helped create), was stunned by the treachery of his ex-friend. "It is still a mystery," Duranty wrote, that men like Romm "should continue to follow Trotsky" when it was obvious that "Stalin was the man Russia needed."
Duranty's piece was not, Usdin notes in a tone of wonder, the stupidest thing to come from an American in Moscow during the trial. "Duranty was a cynical Stalinist," Usdin observes, "but the American ambassador, Joseph Davies, was something worse: a complete fool." Davies wrote to the Times imploring the editors to stop suggesting improprieties in the trial. Romm didn't have any bruises, Davies declared, so "his testimony bore the hallmarks of credibility."
Some American journalists agreed. The New York Post said it was hard to believe that the show trials were not just, because "not one of the 33 [defendants who confessed] had the courage to let out a protest before the assembled representatives of foreign powers and the foreign press. Not one."
Usdin does not label this editorial stupid, because it was born not of ignorance but of astounding mendacity. Its author was a reporter named Isidor Feinstein, better known in the United States as I.F. Stone. In Moscow, Soviet spymasters referred to him as Blin ("Pancake"), his KGB code name.
Stone was a rabble-rousing left-wing journalist whose I.F. Stone's Weekly newsletter was an inspiration to newspapermen who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. Many remember his sometimes extraordinary investigative reporting (he was one of the few reporters to challenge the U.S. government's claims of a North Vietnamese naval attack in the Tonkin Gulf) while conveniently forgetting his idiocies (he was the only reporter to produce an entire book arguing that the Korean War was started by the South). Stone undoubtedly wrote what he believed, however ludicrous that sometimes was. But Bureau of Spies makes it clear that he was also a knowing Soviet agent for a decade or more.
Pravdin and his associates worked arduously to talk to Stone several times in September 1944. It took a month to get a private meeting where they made a pitch. Stone asked for a lot of money—a sufficiently large sum that Pravdin had to check it with Moscow. Whether Stone got it isn't clear from the available records, but "it is certain that he stayed in touch with Pravdin after the Russian indicated he was an intelligence officer seeking secret information," Usdin writes. "Washington's loudest whistleblower, a man who made a career ferreting out malfeasance and hypocrisy, felt no need to inform his readers that the Soviet Union was trying to recruit him and other journalists as spies."
As with the suspicious personages that dot the media landscape today, many of the characters in Usdin's book are not really spies at all, just ideological wingnuts pushing propaganda for causes that are creepy or crazy or both. James True, who published anti-Semitic newsletters and had patented a wooden club shaped like a cutlass that he called the Kike Killer (in those days before gallantry died, there was even a smaller ladies' version available), may have shared the Nazis' racial views, but he wasn't an informer.
One of his most implacable enemies was, though. John Spivak, a correspondent for the INS wire service (later absorbed by UPI), wrote a brutal exposé of True for the lefty magazine New Masses. The story failed to mention that Spivak was a paid Soviet agent who used his reporting trips as a cover for tracking down Trotskyites for Moscow. His intelligence reports were far more colorful than his newspaper stories; one dispatch to his handlers on a missing German aristocrat claimed that the man was castrated and his wife was a hermaphrodite.
That report also would have been welcome at the White House, where Roosevelt had a yen for sexually outré spy tales. He used syndicated newspaper columnist John Franklin Carter, who moonlighted as a novelist, as his personal spook, dashing hither and yon to collect the sort of stuff that the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA, just couldn't come up with, including the news that the USO's donut dollies were riddled with Nazi agents.
Carter's best source was Putzi Hanfstaengl, a Harvard grad and Nazi defector whose accomplishments included inventing the Sieg Heil chant. (His wife supposedly talked Hitler out of suicide in his youth, a surprisingly undercelebrated achievement in mental health circles.) Hanfstaengl deluged FDR with sexual gossip, including supposed details about Hitler's fetish for whips, his infection with the clap by a Jewish prostitute in Vienna, and his inability to attain "real and complete sexual fulfillment." Women had to do something special to get Hitler off, Hanfstaengl confided, "the exact nature of which is a state secret." Roosevelt read this stuff in his White House bed at night, then locked it in his personal safe.
Alas, in those unenlightened times, Hanfstaengl fell under suspicion of being gay. ("While Carter was happy to associate with a racist anti-Semitic Nazi, he was wary of homosexuals," Usdin notes drily.) The president's journalist pal Clare Boothe Luce, valiantly trying to restore the credibility of a key intelligence source, suggested leaving the defector alone with Somerset Maugham's gay German secretary to see if they would jump on one another. But when the two were introduced, Hanfstaengl begged Carter to get rid of the secretary.
"One of the things I couldn't stand about Hitler," he explained, "was all the fairies he had around him." Case closed.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spies in the Media".