The Best and Worst in American Spy Tactics

Glenn L. Carle, a former senior CIA counterterrorism official, revealed to the New York Times last week that in 2005 he was pressured by the Bush White House to dig up dirt on a prominent Iraq war critic, University of Michigan Professor, Juan Cole. This is a case that represents both the absolute worst and best of America: worst, because this is proof that the CIA can be run almost like a secret police force; yet best, because we can at least somewhat openly discuss how the CIA can be run like a secret police force.

Still this chapter can only be considered another stain upon American democracy, highlighting the bedfellowship of the defense establishment and the media. After all, the desired information about Cole would probably not have sat around in a file in Northern Virginia somewhere, if the CIA had actually found any juicy tidbits about the man. Surely it would have been splattered all over the newspapers, or in some Op-ed column (Valarie Plame, anyone?) far away from criticism about the war having been a bust, the latter of which having been relegated to the back pages.

Cole, however, brushed off the fact that spooks may have been digging through his garbage at some point.

“They must have been dismayed at what a boring life I lead,” he shrugged in an interview with New York Times security reporter, James Risen.

Ironically, Cole is a supporter of the war in Libya.

Nevertheless, the incident is disturbing, although hardly a surprise. Anyone who has studied the 1975 Church Committee – a Post-Watergate inquiry into the shady activities of American intelligence organs – should know about Operation: Mockingbird, a program through which the Agency sought to support the work of sympathetic editors and writers. As Carl Bernstein described the program in an article for Rolling Stone in 1977, “journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements of America’s leading news organizations.” But after it was exposed, Tthe CIA said it would never do it again. And while known episodes of CIA media influence since that time mainly involve Hollywood consulting (no, seriously), given the Iraq War intelligence debacle the American Public could be forgiven for believing that a promise from the CIA isn’t worth the invisible ink that its written in, whether or not intelligence was mainly manipulated by the Bush White House.

Still, the agency must be given some credit with respect to spooky media manipulation post-Watergate; deniability in this case – sans the Cole Affair – is rather plausible. Besides, there are plenty of other government agencies working hard to manipulate public opinion. In 2009, reporter David Barstow won the Pulitzer for his New York Times story about how the Department of Defense leaned on retired generals to distort the news. As described by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Barstow’s article exposed:

“…how dozens of retired generals working as radio and television analysts had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for the war in Iraq and how many of them also had undisclosed ties to military contractors that benefited from policies they defended….

..David Bartow wrote, quote, “’Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse—an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.”’

The officials appeared on all the main cable news channels—Fox News, CNN and MSNBC—as well as the three nightly network news broadcasts.”

Which is remarkable; the same newspaper that employed Judith Miller could shed light on media corruption under the same government that completely twisted the media around its finger to make its case to go to war with Iraq. It just goes to show you that the American government is pretty poor when it comes to outright totalitarian methodology.

Or am I just hoping that the CIA won’t put me on a smear list, myself? If so, let me just say agents would be wasting their time digging through my garbage: all they’d find is a bunch of phone numbers of models that I’ve discarded. There simply isn’t enough time to pay attention to all of them.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.