WORKING PRESS — CIA STYLE
and the Media, by Carl Bernstein, originally published in Rolling
To understand the role of most journalist‑operatives, it is necessary to dismiss some myths about undercover work for American intelligence services. Few American agents are “spies” in the popularly accepted sense of the term. “Spying” — the acquisition of secrets from a foreign government—is almost always done by foreign nationals who have been recruited by the CIA and are under CIA control in their own countries. Thus the primary role 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. The peculiar nature of the job of the foreign correspondent is ideal for such work: he is accorded unusual access by his host country, permitted to travel in areas often off‑limits to other Americans, spends much of his time cultivating sources in governments, academic institutions, the military establishment and the scientific communities. He has the opportunity to form long‑term personal relationships with sources and—perhaps more than any other category of American operative—is in a position to make correct judgments about the susceptibility and availability of foreign nationals for recruitment as spies.
“After a foreigner is recruited, a case officer often has to stay in the background,” explained a CIA official. “So you use a journalist to carry messages to and from both parties”
in the field generally took their assignments in the same manner as any other
undercover operative. If, for instance, a journalist was based in
The tasks they performed sometimes consisted of little more than serving as “eyes and ears” for the CIA; reporting on what they had seen or overheard in an Eastern European factory, at a diplomatic reception in Bonn, on the perimeter of a military base in Portugal. On other occasions, their assignments were more complex: planting subtly concocted pieces of misinformation; hosting parties or receptions designed to bring together American agents and foreign spies; serving up “black” propaganda to leading foreign journalists at lunch or dinner; providing their hotel rooms or bureau offices as “drops” for highly sensitive information moving to and from foreign agents; conveying instructions and dollars to CIA controlled members of foreign governments.
Often the CIA’s relationship with a journalist might begin informally with a lunch, a drink, a casual exchange of information. An Agency official might then offer a favor—for example, a trip to a country difficult to reach; in return, he would seek nothing more than the opportunity to debrief the reporter afterward. A few more lunches, a few more favors, and only then might there be a mention of a formal arrangement — “That came later,” said a CIA official, “after you had the journalist on a string.”
official described a typical example of the way accredited journalists (either
paid or unpaid by the CIA) might be used by the Agency: “In return for our
giving them information, we’d ask them to do things that fit their roles as
journalists but that they wouldn’t have thought of unless we put it in their
minds. For instance, a reporter in
Formal recruitment of reporters was generally handled at high levels—after the journalist had undergone a thorough background check. The actual approach might even be made by a deputy director or division chief. On some occasions, no discussion would he entered into until the journalist had signed a pledge of secrecy.
secrecy agreement was the sort of ritual that got you into the tabernacle,”
said a former assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. “After that you
had to play by the rules.” David Attlee Phillips, former Western Hemisphere
chief of clandestine services and a former journalist himself, estimated in an
interview that at least 200 journalists signed secrecy agreements or employment
contracts with the Agency in the past twenty‑five years. Phillips, who
owned a small English‑language newspaper in
“One of the things we always had going for us in terms of enticing reporters,” observed a CIA official who coordinated some of the arrangements with journalists, “was that we could make them look better with their home offices. A foreign correspondent with ties to the Company [the CIA] stood a much better chance than his competitors of getting the good stories.”
the CIA, journalist‑operatives were accorded elite status, a consequence
of the common experience journalists shared with high‑level CIA
officials. Many had gone to the same schools as their CIA handlers, moved in
the same circles, shared fashionably liberal, anti‑Communist political
values, and were part of the same “old boy” network that constituted something
of an establishment elite in the media, politics and academia of postwar
Agency’s use of journalists in undercover operations has been most extensive in
the Sixties, reporters were used extensively in the CIA offensive against
Salvador Allende in
to CIA officials, the Agency has been particularly sparing in its use of
journalist agents in
The Soviets, according to CIA officials, have consistently raised false charges of CIA affiliation against individual American reporters as part of a continuing diplomatic game that often follows the ups and downs of Soviet‑American relations. The latest such charge by the Russians—against Christopher Wren of the New York Times and Alfred Friendly Jr., formerly of Newsweek, has no basis in fact, they insist.
CIA officials acknowledge, however, that such charges will persist as long as the CIA continues to use journalistic cover and maintain covert affiliations with individuals in the profession. But even an absolute prohibition against Agency use of journalists would not free reporters from suspicion, according to many Agency officials. “Look at the Peace Corps,” said one source. “We have had no affiliation there and they [foreign governments] still throw them out”