The Central Intelligence Agency constantly attempts to manipulate journalism on the global security state. It is part of the DNA of the spy agency to spread propaganda and spur debates undermining the truth. Yet, all too often, establishment media organizations, including their most prominent reporters, are willing accomplices in the CIA’s efforts to prevent certain stories from being told.
Nicholas Schou, an investigative journalist for OC Weekly and author of “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Epidemic Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb,” returns to the subject of national security journalism in his new book, “Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood.”
As Schou notes, the CIA has a long history of “spooking the news.” Schou picks up after the late 1970s, when “systematic media manipulation” was exposed and the CIA created an Office of Public Affairs, which purportedly was to handle the press in a more “transparent” manner. His book examines the varying methods the CIA has developed to influence public perceptions of the agency through “pressure, seduction, and deception” of reporters, filmmakers, and television writers and directors.
I interviewed Schou about his new book, and below is a full transcript of our interview.
GOSZTOLA: Broadly speaking, your book covers how reporters act in favorable manners to the CIA and how they’re not actually engaging in investigative journalism. So, please flesh out what you mean by the CIA “spooking the news.”
SCHOU: What a lot of people don’t realize is that the CIA used to directly employ hundreds of reporters and editors up until the 1970s when this was exposed by Carl Bernstein in a Rolling Stone article at a time when the CIA was put under much tighter restrictions, including not being allowed to recruit anybody in the news media. So, the assumption then is that the news media, especially beginning in the 1970s, became very oppositional to government and people assume that that’s what the function of the media is in our country.
But to a large extent, that’s just a complete myth, and instead, what you have are reporters that effectively become unpaid assets of the CIA simply in order to do their job. So that’s what I focus on trying to flesh out that story and find out what impact that has on what Americans read in the news.
GOSZTOLA: And then, more broadly, in relation to the relationship with the journalists, what is the gain that the CIA gets from having these relationships with people in Hollywood?
SCHOU: When it comes to Hollywood, the CIA again had a very sour relationship, I think, with the entertainment industry during the Vietnam-Watergate era, and everybody’s familiar with all these movies from that time that sort of depict the CIA as a malevolent force. But ever since the 1980s but particularly the 1990s, when the CIA opened a special office within its public affairs division to try and work with Hollywood, there’s been a lot of direct contact between the CIA and Hollywood through consultants that studios would hire.
Prior to Watergate, for example, every studio had a CIA employee embedded with them that was basically there to try and make sure that the movies that Hollywood was putting out didn’t betray national security interests. But now you’ve got sort of a symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and the CIA, where consultants that used to work for the agency come on board with projects in return for providing technical advice on scripts. By giving movies the veneer of authenticity, you have a reliably pro-CIA point of view. That’s what the agency more or less gets.
A really good case to look at would be “Argo,” which you know it’s a riveting story; the ending, with the hostages being rescued and being chased down the tarmac by the Iranian Army. It’s complete fiction. The gist of it is both Hollywood and the CIA are heroes in this movie, and it was something that the CIA was delighted to see because they worked very closely with the producers of that movie to make it happen.
GOSZTOLA: Staying on this topic of Hollywood, one of the more fascinating examples of the CIA trying to prevent certain stories from being told or a certain film from being produced involves Marlon Brando. This was something that I was completely unfamiliar with, even though I was familiar with some of the other examples of collusion in Hollywood between CIA and other producers. So, I just would like you to briefly highlight what happened. I believe this was in the 1980s.
SCHOU: This was right after the Iran-Contra scandal broke. For “Spooked,” I interviewed several former CIA officers, including Frank Snepp. Frank Snepp was an embassy briefer for the CIA from 1969 to 1975, but after that, he became a TV producer and investigative news producer and also happened to be friends with Marlon Brando.
At one point, Brando was trying to secure the rights a story involving Iran-Contra and a cargo handler, who was shot down over Nicaragua. Snepp tried to arrange a meeting at Brando’s residence, where they were going to secure the rights to this movie. But they found that they were being outbid by a really shady production company nobody had ever heard of, which basically didn’t even really exist. Frank Snepp was ultimately able to confirm that it was really Oliver North, who was trying to orchestrate a bidding operation to try to prevent this movie from being made.
No one’s ever really heard that story before. This is the first time that it’s been told, but it does raise the question of how many other countless projects are stymied by this kind of behind-the-scenes maneuvering when CIA or national security interests do not want a story to be told.
GOSZTOLA: Of course, in your book, you cover other prominent examples of entertainment that people are really familiar with. You look into “Homeland” and the production. One of the things that’s striking to me, and I’d like your comment on this, is the difference, the evolution. You point to how we’ve gone from Jack Bauer in “24” to having Carrie in “Homeland,” played by Claire Danes, and the way that the CIA has become more sophisticated in putting its message out to the public. Would you address that?
SCHOU: “Homeland” is a really good example of a much more subtle type of CIA propaganda. This is a very unusual concept to have a CIA officer being depicted as bipolar and breaking every conceivable agency rule and yet still managing to rise through the ranks of the agency and become Near East director, if I’m not mistaken—but increasingly powerful. So, episode after episode, season after season, we see this character become much more powerful within the CIA, despite all these attributes.
On the other hand, the backstory of this is a reliably pro-CIA message. The world is a dangerous place, and that we need people like Carrie Mathison and with all of her faults in order to save us from impending doom of the typical Islamic bogeyman terrorist. And so, in some ways, it’s a throwback.
GOSZTOLA: You cover the most egregious example in recent history with “Zero Dark Thirty.” Of it, of what you were writing about, what stands out to you as the most striking aspect of this interaction between producers and the CIA?
SCHOU: “Zero Dark Thirty” is a really interesting case, and I spend a whole chapter in “Spooked” going through it. It received a lot of criticism, even before the film ever came out, from Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain—John McCain, a victim of torture, and Senator Feinstein, a leader of the Senate’s inquiry into the CIA’s involvement with torture. Both of them criticized this movie because they claimed that it depicted torture as playing a vital role in the capture of Osama bin Laden, which they said was not true.
Now, we know for a fact that the CIA was deeply involved in torture, not just in the “War on Terror” but also going back to Vietnam. So, there’s a certain disingenuousness to that whole controversy, but ultimately, I think the takeaway is that this movie did seal in the minds of the American public that there was an elaborate cat-and-mouse game that tracked down bin Laden and then all this expensive effort and personal heroism on behalf of these characters on the screen trying to find out where he is.
And yet, Seymour Hersh comes out with a story a long time after the film came out and was already in studios and had already been told and his article punctured that myth very, very deeply by quoting from officials within the administration that said in fact we paid for the information that led to the discovery of bin Laden’s location and that it was in fact a Pakistani ex-intelligence officer seeking reward money that effectively told the CIA exactly where he was.
This raises the question of what the American public might have thought led to bin Laden’s demise had this helicopter not crashed at the site because apparently what the plan was to save Pakistan’s national honor we’d basically come in and take bin Laden out of the country and claim that we had found him in Afghanistan and that he had died in a firefight effectively. That’s at least what Hersh’s story claimed. And other reporters had actually found evidence of this in the past but just because they worked for papers like the New York Time the stories never came out.
In any case, we know that this helicopter did crash. President Obama had no choice but to hold a hastily assembled press conference and put out the official story. So, that’s a very interesting case where you have a reporter that writes something that’s completely contradictory to the official story. What does the rest of the media do? Instead of digging into it and trying to advance the story, by and large, the media attention on Hersh’s reporting focused on him, and his personality and grouchiness.
GOSZTOLA: Let’s talk about this. I suppose since we’re on the subject, before we get to a couple specific methods that you highlight in your book, which the CIA has used to engage in press manipulation, let’s talk about the fact that most of the times these reporters from these establishment institutions are all too willing to play actively in the sort of scripts that the CIA wants them to play in when they’re engaged in their journalism. There are a number of examples that you raise in your book, but someone like Walter Pincus of the Washington Post would be very eager to slap down any sort of national security journalism that was critical of the CIA.
SCHOU: Walter Pincus—he finally retired—for a long time he was the CIA’s man at the Washington Post, for lack of a better term. He actually worked for the CIA when was a student, spying on student groups at a time when this was very common practice for anybody, any student who traveled abroad in the 1950s and 1960s had to submit effectively to a CIA exit interview. He tried to downplay because what happened was Pincus led the Washington Post’s critical coverage of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb’s exposé on the CIA’s involvement with drug trafficking.
One person that worked for the Washington Post when the Post was reacting to this story and assembling articles at the direction and with the full cooperation of the CIA, trying to debunk this exposé that Webb had produced, the Washington Post reporter on the ground in Central America, Douglas Farah, was actually finding evidence to back up what Webb wrote. But because Pincus was there, and sort of managing what the paper’s response would be, the headline was that Webb was wrong. So, that’s just one example of how even though Pincus was never on the payroll of the CIA, even probably when he was an informant for them back when he was a younger student, he effectively acted like that. That’s what gave him the ability to have exclusive scoops and a career spanning decades at the Washington Post.
GOSZTOLA: As a followup, is one of the major problems within these institutions the fact that these reporters actually share the same worldviews of these CIA officers? That they become indoctrinated in the ways they view the world, whether it be under the War on Terrorism or other struggles or fights that are being waged around the world?
SCHOU: When it comes to the Washington Post and the New York Times, in particular, and to a lesser extent, some of the other major newspapers, that’s certainly the case—especially the Washington Post, one cannot emphasize, but also Newsweek.
One interesting anecdote that I came across in reading Ben Bradlee’s biography was about how when he was at Newsweek they had a column in the paper called the “Periscope” column. And this “Periscope” column, it’s where they would put random tidbits of anything that wasn’t fully developed as a story. It was one of the most popular columns because it was always full of what looked like inside information coming from top secret sources. This was effectively a CIA dropbox. In other words, Newsweek had a column that was basically written by the CIA every week and everything that ended up in there was what the CIA wanted to be in there.
Another example in this sense that I came across in talking to Frank Snepp was that when he was in charge of propaganda for Vietnam and was basically trying to get stories written that the agency needed, he actually would write these stories himself. He would then find them in magazines like The Economist. How that exactly was arranged, he didn’t even know. He would write the stories and then they would just appear in these magazines. The CIA isn’t allowed to do that anymore, obviously, but what they are allowed to continue to do is recruit foreign reporters and also seed stories in foreign publications that are then picked up by the American news media.
So, there’s all these different elaborate ways that the CIA and security agencies obviously can manipulate reporters. Sometimes the reporters are in on it. They are trading editorial sympathy for access, for example. There’s a whole slew of emails that The Intercept was able to get a hold of that half of them—we’re talking thousands of pages of emails—almost half of them concerned one particular reporter at the Wall Street Journal and her relationship with the public affairs people at the CIA and just how she and other reporters were effectively telling the agency, this is what I am working on. This is exactly what the story is going to say. What’s your comment? It was effectively like they were on the same team.
GOSZTOLA: Yes, that was Siobhan Gorman. One of the methods that is a popular favorite of the CIA to use is “controversializing” an individual. What was remarkable about your book—it probably didn’t originate with him. I’m sure people were doing this to reporters before him, but Robert Kagan, you highlight in the book. Of course, now we see him out helping Hillary Clinton fundraise for her presidential campaign. So, it just was interesting to see his name in your book.
SCHOU: “Controversialization”—I think the reporter who told me about the term and had a very funny anecdote about the first time that ever came up was Bob Parry, who was a reporter at the Associate Press and then later at Newsweek after he had basically been forced out of the Associated Press for covering Iran-Contra and for digging up stories about the CIA’s involvement with drug traffickers. He would have meetings with people like Kagan, who was a State Department official at the time who jokingly told him, you keep writing stories like this I’m going to have to “controversialize” you.
As we now know, and as documents that were obtained by the National Security Archive demonstrate, the CIA’s Walter Raymond, who was a psychological warfare expert, headed up a unit inside the State Department called the Office of Public Diplomacy, which had the job of trying to propagandize stories to the American public. Whereas the CIA, as I explained and as the book documents, used to be able to directly control stories and plant stories in the news media, now the government had to come up with another manner of doing this. So, it involved very specific targeting of specific stories to specific demographics in the country, and using relationships with different reporters and news agencies that were considered reliable to try to get those stories out.
Anybody who didn’t play by that script, anybody who was considered too independent, was then subjected to what was called “controversialization,” whereby their editors all of a sudden wouldn’t be running their stories anymore. This is exactly what happened to Bob Parry after that conversation with Kagan. His editors just refused to print what he was writing and made his job impossible. Ultimately, he quit the AP and ended up at Newsweek, but even there, it became even worse because you had people like Arnaud de Borchgrave [of Washington Times], who was writing editorial directly attacking him. De Borchgrave used to be on the CIA’s payroll, as we now know. Same thing happened to Gary Webb, and I sort of trace that continuum up to the present day in the book.
GOSZTOLA: And the other thing that happens—I think people who follow reporting of the Intercept might have become a little more familiar with this tactic because I know it’s happened to The Intercept. But you have the CIA helping other media organizations scoop their story so they could either get a better version of the story or maybe send a message to that journalist to back off.
SCHOU: Right, although I have to say it doesn’t appear like the CIA’s tactic with the Intercept is working very well. When I met with the CIA—I actually had a meeting when I was researching this book at the Public Affairs Office in the CIA—The very first thing that they did was complain about the Intercept and about their inability to get the Intercept to not print stories that are in direct contradiction to U.S. national security interest. They’re astounded at the fact that their ability is limited nowadays. So, these press officers felt very unfortunate, and they felt nine times out of ten that they’d tried to stop a story from being printed they weren’t successful.
Today’s media landscape is different. It is trickier for the CIA because of the internet, because of outlets like the Intercept that are completely independent and not susceptible to that kind of editorial pressure. Once the Intercept puts out a story or once WikiLeaks puts something out there, it’s just so quickly disseminated that the CIA doesn’t have the ability to stop it from happening.
GOSZTOLA: Right, so it’s almost impossible to pit rival media organizations against each other anymore.
In your conversations with CIA spokespeople, would they drop names of specific reporters? Are there people, who are on their list? I know that one of the things about your book that is good is that you also highlight some of the work of people who are doing national security journalism in a way that should be a model for others in the press. And you talk to Jason Leopold, who is a friend of this media outlet, and he’s done incredible work. I am sure that they are completely upset by the extent of his Freedom of Information Act requests.
SCHOU: Oh, absolutely. Not just the CIA, but the FBI obviously, as well, because they nicknamed him the “FOIA terrorist.” As a reporter, if you’re someone like Jason Leopold, who specifically doesn’t live in Washington, D.C., doesn’t go to the cocktail parties, doesn’t do access reporting, you’re not susceptible to that type of pressure because you’re not playing the game that needs to be played. So, what I tried to do is talk to reporters that are like that and more independent. Even James Risen, for example, at the New York Times, has broken some very important stories that his own paper only published because he had book deals, where this information was going to come out anyways, but where they sat on this information as long as they could.
There are good reporters out there, even reporters that do have a certain amount of access and relationships with the CIA but are still determined to tell important stories. But they are subjected to this dynamic of having a lot of control placed over that by their own editors by virtue of who they’re writing for. So, there’s a big difference between them and then people like Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald and Jason Leopold and others, who just are not susceptible to that at all.
GOSZTOLA: One of the last questions I’ll ask you is—it’s been quite remarkable to see the pile on by not just mainstream outlets but people who consider themselves a part of the alternative press, when it comes to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. You did talk about him already, but I would like you to specifically comment on the current state of media and how it seems to enable this piling on of any national security journalist, who goes up against the security state. And it would seem this would have been a lot more difficult to accomplish ten or twenty years ago but the internet sort of enables this discrediting of efforts to investigate the national security agencies.
SCHOU: One thing just to preface this commentary on Seymour Hersh is in talking to a lot of different national security reporters there was a consensus that they only know like ten to twenty percent of the story when they’re working on it. It is the most difficult reporting job there is. I mean, unless you happen to be lucky enough to have access to some sort of secret government information that’s documented that you can just put out there where you know what the facts are, if you’re actually trying to following a story the old-fashioned way like an investigative reporter, you’re so reliant on what you’re being told by people that it’s incredibly, tricky difficult work.
Seymour Hersh’s story for the London Review of Books has so much information out there that it’s reliant on just a few different sources. It’s legitimate for people to point that out. It’s legitimate for people to say, well, who are those sources? Is Seymour Hersh being played by them? Has he been seduced by his own success as a reporter that he’s so confident that he ‘s right that perhaps he’s being manipulated and doesn’t realize it? These are all legitimate questions.
But there’s a difference between that and what actually happened once the story came out, which is where if you look at the Washington Post, which was all over the story—They immediately put that information out there, as if it was obvious that he was wrong. They were getting that message from the CIA. They were quoting and referring to interviews with CIA officials that just completely denied this. And White House officials, Obama administration officials that said this is so insane I can’t even comment on it, which was the typical response. It’s obviously the easy way out.
I talked to former CIA officers. Bob Baer—he’s a CIA commentator. Considered one of the biggest expert on the War on Terror, and he said he never believed the official story on that bin Laden raid and that there were holes all over it. Jason Leopold, as well, was in on some of the first conference calls the White House had. The information was coming out willy nilly. If you look at what happened with the official story, it evolved and changed so many times that it was clear that they were making things up as they went along.
One person that I interviewed had the best quote about Hersh and that’s, how much of Hersh’s story about bin Laden was true? Nobody knows. Probably sixty percent, but which sixty percent? Probably not even Seymour Hersh knows, but there’s certainly truth to what he wrote and the media’s completely ignoring that and taking the easy way out by focusing on the fact that Hersh can be kind of cantankerous after all these years, which he is. I interviewed him. It was a very brief interview, but it was illuminating.
GOSZTOLA: One of the things that upset me about the criticism of Hersh is just that there is this evident double standard with the mainstream press, so to speak, going after Hersh for relying on anonymous officials or unnamed officials or relying on one anonymous official, when constantly you’ll have the New York Times or Washington Post spin stories that revolve around one person that they talked to. I would like you to share your view of the role of anonymous officials because they’re probably is still a role in reporting for them. It’s just you have to be careful.
SCHOU: Investigative reporting has always relied on anonymous officials often leaking information to the press. You always have to be skeptical about your sources, and if you’re being given information, you have to ask yourself, why are they requesting anonymity? What possible agenda could they have in doing that? But, obviously, the press has and continues to this day to play an important role in having information leaked to the American public.
One really interesting case that I examine in the book involves the weapons of mass destruction controversy that the CIA found itself embroiled in. I mean, the CIA didn’t have its hands clean in that for sure. They created a lot of bogus intelligence reports and circulated this stuff around. Then it was leaked to the press by Dick Cheney’s office. So, the CIA found itself in this unusual position, where it created intelligence that it knew was unreliable but it did it anyway. When it saw that it was being used to produce front page articles in the New York Times by Judith Miller to rally the American public to support an invasion of Iraq, they had to actually resort to leaking information to their favorite reporters in the press to kind of counteract that propaganda.
In a weird way, you had the CIA trying to catch up to a leak operation that it had inadvertently been implicated in. Unfortunately, whatever stories were produced, particularly by Michael Isikoff, who I talked to for the book. Also, people like Jonathan Landay were very skeptical of all this—They got some support from anonymous officials at the CIA that were desperate to try to make sure that some credible reporters could counteract some of the Cheney propaganda that was coming out. Unfortunately, there was an avalanche of propaganda. The American news media, by and large, sold this invasion to the public, and it’s had nothing but disastrous consequences for everyone involved.
GOSZTOLA: You wrote the book covering Gary Webb as a journalist. So, we know how important it is for the CIA to “controversialize” someone like Gary Webb and make sure we don’t celebrate his work. But also we’re living in an era, where there’s a lot of interest in whistleblowers that come forward and share information. The last subject I’d like to touch on is the efforts that the CIA probably puts into making sure that whistleblowers are discredited when they come forward to the press.
SCHOU: One of the people that I interviewed for the book is John Kiriakou. He’s the only CIA officer, who was ever arrested or charged or served any time in prison in connection with the CIA’s torture scandal, and the crazy utterly outrageous aspect about that is he didn’t torture anybody. He just was arrested because he talked about it. He became the first CIA officer in history to admit the CIA was torturing people. And so, rather than being viewed as a whistleblower, I think the CIA hoped he could be viewed as some disgruntled official, who had played loose with the facts. So, he was subjected to a discredit campaign.
In fact, when his book appeared—He’s of Greek heritage, and the book was going to be translated into Greek, and apparently a source that he had at the [U.S. Embassy] in Greece told him that the CIA was trying to prevent that from happening and they were successful. He’s just one example. Chelsea Manning is another example. Edward Snowden is another example of this.
Whistleblowers, they become the story instead of the information that they share with the American public. That’s the really nefarious aspect of the discredit campaign. I think with Ed Snowden and Julian Assange—it just follows a traditional typical script. Try to find personality aspects of these people that the press can then focus upon. So, with Julian Assange, you always have these stories talking about how he looks sort of ruffled or strange, and you have to understand this is a guy living on the run. What are you supposed to look like in that circumstance?
Ed Snowden, being remarkably sophisticated, knew that this was going to happen, and he took some very important precautions to make sure that the information that he had to share with the public would be the focus and not him until such a time came that he thought it was appropriate to be revealed as the whistleblower. Just as sophisticated as discredit campaigns tend to be, whistleblowers are becoming increasingly sophisticated as well, which is a good thing.