Operation Mockingbird: CIA’s Propaganda Machine

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The Central Intelligence Agency in the United States is widely known by the public to have had roles in various secret operations at home and abroad. People may debate whether or not the CIA has had an overall positive or negative role in terms of influencing American security, but what we can agree on is that the government agency is one of the most secretive. Some would say their very nature as an effective intelligence agency requires certain amounts of secrecy, while others point to evidence of the CIA’s abuse of power at home or abroad. Some sketchy operations and practices of the CIA have even been officially recognized as existing or having existed. One such operation was designed to inundate the public with propaganda, while maintaining the facade of an independent media.

Operation Mockingbird began in the 1950’s a with the official purpose of producing, “propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the free world.” The Wikipedia entry on Operation Mockingbird compiles information from a number of books written about the CIA and this particular subdivision, including a book called American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate, and Beyond which was written by E. Howard Hunt, one of the convicted “Watergate” architects who spent time in prison over the scandal. The operation was meant to influence foreign and domestic media in order to control the dissemination of information according to the CIA’s standards.

Frank Wisner was appointed to direct the Office of Policy Coordination within the CIA, which would run the propaganda operations later named Mockingbird. The first person Wisner recruited to run the industry side of the project was Phil Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. Respected employees of the New York Times, CBS, Newsweek and other media outlets were reportedly “owned” by Wisner and his Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) by the early 1950’s. Operation Mockingbird appeared to recruit mainly reporters and editors who dealt with foreign affairs, and international news, but the information was also officially acknowledged to have influenced the American public increasingly as time went on.

In 1977, a year after “Congressional hearings in 1976 proved the CIA had been paying off editors and reporters in most mainstream media outlets”, People Magazine ran an article detailing how imbedded Operation Mockingbird already was in America.

[O]ne of the most important journalists under the control of Operation Mockingbird was Joseph Alsop, whose foreign affairs articles appeared in over 300 different newspapers. Other journalists alleged by People Magazine to have been willing to promote the views of the CIA included Stewart Alsop who headed the international bureau of the New York Herald Tribune, Ben Bradlee, the foreign affairs correspondent for Newsweek, James Reston for the international section of the New York Times, Charles Douglas Jackson, the foreign photo-journalist for Time Magazine, and international correspondents such as Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, Charles Bartlett of the Chattanooga Times and William C. Baggs and Herb Gold of The Miami News.[7] According to Nina Burleigh (A Very Private Woman), these journalists sometimes wrote articles that were commissioned by Frank Wisner. The CIA also provided them with classified information to help them with their work.[8]

The way the CIA operated under this operation, was to develop reports based on intelligence, and then disseminate those reports to “witting or unwitting reporters”. In the 1950’s Operation Mockingbird had about 3,000 salaried or contract employees working on the project, and had extreme influence over at least 25 print and wire media outlets. With this type of control established, the CIA was not only able to place stories in the media, but prevent others from being released; such as CIA plans to overthrow the government of Iran. There was reportedly no limit to the money that was allowed to be spent by the CIA, or the activities the CIA was allowed to engage in, in order to influence foreign and domestic media. This included bribes and payoffs, with no accountability to Congress or the American public.

When FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover became jealous of the CIA’s growing power, he looked into their past revealing ties to left wing and progressive politics of the 1930’s. This information was relayed to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who started his famous quest to root out communists and security threats within the CIA, which many referred to as a “witch hunt”. With the knowledge of the existence of Operation Mockingbird, Senator McCarthy’s accusations become more legitimate, as Hollywood and the media had indeed been infiltrated by propaganda masters–even though it was the CIA instead of Soviet Russia. Given that McCarthy considered the CIA to be a “sinkhole of communists”, he may have considered their influence exerted over the media to be on par with the Soviets.

McCarthy began targeting members of the Office of Public Coordination with information about their past ties and sympathies. Frank Wisner and another early employee of the OPC, Cord Meyer, were early targets of McCarthy’s investigations. What happened next with Operation Mockingbird may well explain the views most American’s currently hold on McCarthyism and his supposed “witch hunt”.

Contrary to statutory and legal limitations, once the network in authority in the CIA saw its interests threatened, Wisner was directed to unleash Mockingbird on McCarthy. Drew Pearson, Joe Alsop, Jack Anderson, Walter Lippmann and Ed Murrow all engaged in intensely negative coverage of McCarthy, whose political reputation was permanently damaged by the press coverage orchestrated by Wisner.[15]

Once Operation Mockingbird took out the main opposition, Senator McCarthy, the potential of this propaganda machine had been demonstrated. President Eisenhower was later skeptical of the CIA’s covert activities’ importance and legality, and commissioned a report. The report argued that the CIA’s covert operations were

“responsible in great measure for stirring up the turmoil and raising the doubts about us that exists in many countries in the world today.” Bruce [the author] was also highly critical of Mockingbird. He argued: “what right have we to go barging around in other countries buying newspapers and handing money to opposition parties or supporting a candidate for this, that, or the other office.”[17]

By the 1960’s some books and documentaries began to emerge, detailing the CIA’s propaganda crusade and linking it to such operations as the Bay of Pigs, and covert operations in Vietnam. The CIA had a hard time containing these reports, however with Operation Mockingbird at their disposal, they continued to plant editorials about pro-CIA politicians, and run articles such as I’m glad the CIA is ‘Immoral’, defending their secret activity as important for American security. The author, Thomas Braden, justified the illegal activities of the CIA by saying that they were necessary for protecting America in the early days of the cold war, when congress would never have dreamed of approving some of their CIA schemes. Of course, there is a reason why organizations such as the CIA need congressional approval, to avoid abuses of power such as Operation Mockingbird. In 1972 Cord Meyer, who worked for the OPC, was exposed as trying to suppress the publication of a book critical of the CIA.

In 1975 and 1976 the Church Committee investigation fully exposed the CIA operation to influence media, and a congressional report stated the following:

The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who provide intelligence for the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda. These individuals provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets.

The propaganda efforts of the CIA were estimated at the time to cost taxpayers $265 million annually. George H. W. Bush who was the recently appointed CIA director in 1976, said that effective immediately, the CIA would no longer pay or enter into contracts with reporters or the media, but would continue to “‘welcome’ the voluntary unpaid cooperation of journalists”. Case closed, right? Obviously something this widespread would not be as easily ended as this. Bush’s words were an act of cooling out the public, so that the CIA could lay low, and continue its campaign of propaganda on the American people. Maybe they changed the name of the Operation, but we can be sure the framework and existence of the CIA propaganda machine continues to this day, under a similar design to the original Operation Mockingbird.

And that is much of what we know about Operation Mockingbird. This brings new meaning to the phrase, “biased media”. I hope this will make people realize that our government has in the past, and almost certainly still does, directly influence the media that we see on television, on the internet, and in newspapers. The relationship that politicians have to the media should be disconcerting, for example the vast number of reporters scooped up into the Obama Administration as a reward for positive coverage during the 2008 election. Or the recent coordination between the Department of Justice and Media Matters to attack anyone critical of the DOJ. Also, take a look at some of the comments made by John Brennan, nominee for CIA Chief, about censorship. Clearly with this type of government-media relationship we cannot hope to get unbiased, accurate news from the typical sources, which is why we must meet all news with scrutiny, and logically assess whether it is likely to be accurate.

The internet is helping the public to figure out which information is true, and which is lies, but the line is easily blurred. That is why we must remain vigilant, and never allow ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy by media hysteria. Whether it is justifying a new war, outlawing guns, or supporting corrupt politicians, state media can be seen through the cracks of many media outlets, attempting to shape public opinion on particular issues. I just hope this shines light on the fact that our government has, and still does engage in producing and disseminating propaganda to the American people, in order to carry out their ulterior motives.