The Mask Spies and Journalists Wear

By Jirair Tutunjian, Toronto, 6 February 2022

Whenever a Western journalist is accused of being a spy by a foreign government — especially from the Third World or hostile to the West government — the Western media rushes to the defense of the journalist. However, there’s a long history, going back to the mid-19th century that proves journalists spying for their governments or spies who pretend to be journalists are not uncommon.

William Howard Russell of The Times, history’s first foreign correspondent, provided secret information to his government while covering the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. Young Winston Churchill, while covering the Boer War, acted as a spy for the British government. He then tore all pretense and joined in the fighting.

Tom Little (1911-1975) was the head of the Arab News Agency (ANA) in Cairo and acted as correspondent for The Economist and The Times. At the same time, he was senior officer of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in Cairo. His story is told in “Castles Media of Sand” by Andre Geroymatos. Operating out of the well-respected ANA, Little managed to establish links with radical students and religious groups, as well as cashiered officers. Eventually, the Egyptian security services raided the British-controlled ANA and arrested thirty of its staff. ANA not only served as a cover for MI6 in Cairo but also for British intelligence operations throughout Egypt under the guise of businessmen, journalists or teachers.

Journalist spies/spy journalists have frequently appeared in fiction. Here’s a paragraph from The Night’s a Time for Listening by Elliot West: “It takes all kinds, Marcus,” Vernon said. “One thing though; don’t be so neutral and unaligned that you pass up things we can use. Press boys are among our best sources, you know that.”

A few years ago, CNN acted as a front for the CIA when it aired stories alleging that President Donald Trump had close and secret links with Vladimir Putin. It also reported that Trump had cavorted with Russian prostitutes while staying at a Moscow hotel.

American intelligence agencies deployed journalists as covert agents during the war in Vietnam. A Congressional Committee investigating America’s secret services reported in the early ‘70s: “Full-time correspondents for major U.S publications have worked concurrently for the CIA, passing along information received in the normal course of their regular jobs and even, on occasion, travelling to otherwise non-newsworthy areas to acquire data.” The CIA also had stringers and other part-time freelancers who collected information and rumours and planted stories in foreign media that were fed into the international news traffic and sometimes appeared in U.S print and electronic outlets.

Richard Helms, director of CIA, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 7, 1973 and said: “There is no effort to twist anyone’s arms. We simply are giving them [journalists] an opportunity as patriotic Americans to say what they know…”

While the 1977 CIA regulations ban the agency’s use of U.S journalists, the CIA is not barred from using foreign journalists or volunteers. As well, the CIA and the FBI continue to use journalists as cover under “extraordinary circumstances” loophole. Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney General’s guidelines (1992) allow FBI agents to impersonate journalists with the approval of bureau headquarters.

One of the most important instances where a spy acted as a journalist was the case of Kim Philby. A veteran British spy (also a Soviet spy in the heart of British intelligence services), Philby was sent to Beirut in the late ‘50s as foreign correspondent for The Times, The Economist, and The Observer. He collected three paychecks: from the British secret service, the British publications, and the KGB.

Editor and perhaps the most famous U.S leftist journalist I.F. Stone enjoyed a reputation as cleaner than driven snow. He was a paid Soviet agent from 1936 to 1938 and was in close contact with Soviet spies during the Second World War.

KGB considered using Ernest Hemingway. They even assigned a code name (“Argo”) for him. But the novelist was written off when he criticized the Soviets, according to writer Winston Burdett.

Kermit Roosevelt arrived in Cairo in May 1947 on a commission to write a series of features for Harper’s magazine. The magazine commission gave Roosevelt cover for his work for the American Central Intelligence group—forerunner of the CIA—to gather intelligence across the Middle East. Egypt’s “Voice of the Arabs” (Sawt el-Arab), the most popular radio station in the Middle East, was provided with microphones by the CIA in the Fifties.

At one point in the late Fifties and the early Sixties, the CIA had about 400 full-time journalists on its payroll. Over the years such journalistic luminaries as Margaret Bourke-White, Charles Collingwood, Martha Gellhorn, John Gunther, William L. Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, Morley Safer, and Howard K. Smith provided information to their governments.

Some years ago, when a Canadian journalist (not Armenian) visited Soviet Armenia, he was interviewed by the Mounties before and after his trip. Was he told what to look for or who to contact in Armenia? The author of this article was approached by a diplomat from the Soviet satellite countries to “build bridges” between Diaspora Armenians and his country. Meanwhile, in the US foreign correspondents are debriefed by CIA’s domestic contact service upon returning from “sensitive” areas.

Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist for thirty years, copied thousands of secret documents which he smuggled with the help of MI6 to Britain in 1992. Several years later, two books were written by MI6 historian Christopher Andrew based on the archives. The archives included the names of more than 60 Armenians who had been either Moscow KGB of Armenia KGB agents or were considered “trusted contacts”. Among the trusted contacts of Armenia KGB were famed writer/editor Antranig Dzaroukian of Lebanon, poet/memoirist Vahram Mavian of Jerusalem, newspaper editor Mitchell Kehetian of Detroit, and Aramazd Chizmanyan, owner of the Vanguard-42 radio station in Uruguay.

In more recent times, ISIS accused American journalist James Foley of being a spy when he was murdered by the terrorist group in 2014. Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief reporter Daniel Pearl, who was also murdered in Southeast Asia, was accused by his killers of spying for the CIA. Jury is out on that.

While journalist spies and spy journalists are condemned by Western societies, the practice is not objectionable to Russian authorities. Major General Yuri Kobaldze of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence, has said: “There is no essential difference between the work of a spy and a journalist; both collect information in the same way—just the end consumers are different.” He also said: “Journalists make the best spies. They have more freedom of access than diplomats.”

Kobaldze makes a good point. Somerset Maugham, already a famous playwright and novelist, was sent to revolutionary Russia on an espionage mission. The king of espionage novelists John Le Carre was a British spy in the Fifties and the early Sixties. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was an intelligence agent during the Second World War. Likewise Graham Greene and Frederick Forsyth.

The worlds of journalism and intelligence overlap: spies pose as journalists and journalists as spies. While the spy serves his national interest, the journalist serves the general public. But both are interested in the same thing.

The mushrooming of social media has been almost fatal to traditional media. Over the past 15 years, a quarter of local U.S newspapers have folded because they had lost a large chunk of their ad and subscription revenues to digital media. From 2008 to 2020 U.S newsroom staff numbers fell a whopping 26 percent (from 114,000 to 85,000.) The diminution of mainstream media has in turn diminished the status and reduced the salaries of journalists. The trend could make hard-pressed journalists more prone to the lucrative blandishments of Western secret services. That fact is all the more reason to support the independent and alternative media which is not compromised and owes no debt to the establishment, the elite, or the legacy movers and shakers of yore.

5 comments
  1. Great article as usual Jirair. Very interesting details and substantiated facts. Growing up in the Middle East we were always reminded to be very careful in dealing with reporters. Very refreshing, Thanks again!

  2. Thank you, Jirair, for an enlightening article. On a different note, chef Julia Child worked for the CIA, while in the cooking profession in Paris.

  3. I echo the sentiments of Mr. Terzibashian. Very well done! We Armenians can be too trusting…and that goes for assessing the non-Armenians who take a deep interest in us, attend our events and gather their information. (We are not alone in this tendency; all disadvantaged peoples do the same thing — welcome with open arms those precious few who take interest in us and may be able to help.)

  4. Thank you, David, H, Sylvie, and Boghos. Volumes can be written about espionage/journalism links. Since you are interested in the topic, here is more material from my notebook.

    1. On page 22 of “King’s Counsel” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011) author Jack O’Connell (CIA station chief in Jordan in 1958) wrote: “Shortly after I arrived in Beirut, I recruited a top Lebanese newspaperman as a principal-agent and headhunter for spies. You recruit a principal-agent because he knows everybody in the town…you might match his salary, pay him $10,000 a year…”

    2. In “Finks” Joel Whitney: “The Paris Review [one of the top English language literary magazines] was originally set up and used as a cover for Peter Mattheisen’s activities as an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency…George Plimpton, the editor, failed to confess his own ties to the CIA, ties that emerged in 2012 when several years’ worth of correspondence between Plimpton, his staff, and functionaries of the /CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) were unearthed in the TPR archives at the Morgan Library in Manhattan.

    “There were more than two dozen CCF-friendly literary magazines (Preuves in France, Der Monat in Germany, Encounter in the UK, Quest in India, Mund Nuevo in Paris, Jiyu in Japan. These magazines were conceived, created, named, and, even overseen by CIA officers who directly consulted with the likes of CIA Director Allen Dulles and other agency or foreign intelligence about their editorial operations…”

    Whitney said it’s widely accepted in the U.S. that journalists may justifiably do double duty as CIA assets and that the CIA may use media as cover.

    3. Nicholas Schou wrote in “Spooked”: “Because of the corporate media’s longtime collaboration with the CIA, which dated back to the agency’s inception in 1947, it took Carl Bernstein three decades before the wall of silence broke.”

    Schou also wrote that such giants of American media as Henry Luce, William Paley, and New York Times publisher Arthur H.. Sulzberger, Arnaud de Bochgrave, and, Joseph Alsop had links to the CIA.

    4, Literary critic Dwight MacDonald’s “America! America!” article was at first accepted by Encounter’s editor Stephen Spender. But later the CCF and the CIA ordered the editor to kill the piece. Spender said he was forced to change his mind.

    5. Secret agent Christopher Montague Woodhouse, who helped set up Encounter (and helped install the Shah of Iran) was one of the several spies who wrote for Encounter.

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