KATHERINE THE GREAT, THE WASHINGTON POST AND THE CIA: A LOVE STORY
Shortly after the CIA was formed in 1948, the agency initiated Operation Mockingbird, which was a campaign to influence popular perception through various front organizations and the media. Frank Wisner, head of the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination, oversaw Operation Mockingbird, and Wisner boasted that he was the maestro of a “mighty Wurlitzer” that was “capable of playing any propaganda tune he desired.”
The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, published by Harvard University Press, provides a sweeping overview of Operation Mockingbird. But a second book, Katharine the Great, written by former Village Voice journalist Deborah Davis, is a biographical sketch of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and it focuses specifically on the clandestine connections between the CIA and Washington Post. According to Katharine the Great and numerous sources, the CIA’s Frank Wisner tapped then-Washington Post publisher Philip Graham to be the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird point man to infiltrate the media.
In Katherine the Great, Davis quoted a former CIA agent who discussed meetings between CIA personnel and Philip Graham in which they conferred about the availability and prices of journalists: “You could get a journalist cheaper than a good call girl, for a couple hundred dollars a month.” (I’ve often heard the comparison between journalists and prostitutes, but I think that comparison potentially denigrates the profession of prostitution. Most prostitutes aren’t willing to destroy a life to turn a trick, but many journalists will handily destroy a life to land a story—even if the story is about trivial nonsense.)
“By the early 1950s,” Davis wrote in Katharine the Great, “Wisner ‘owned’ respected members of the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS, and other communications vehicles, plus stringers, four to six hundred in all, according to a former CIA analyst.” Davis also noted that Philip Graham stocked the Washington Post with writers and editors who had “intelligence backgrounds.”
In addition to spotlighting the relationship between the CIA and Philip Graham, Davis examined the connections between the CIA and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor from 1968 to 1991. Bradlee was the executive editor of the Post during the newspaper’s exposure of Watergate and also when it covered up Spence’s network. Bradlee has been portrayed as the Post’s salty editor who spurred on the “boys’”—Woodward and Bernstein’s—quest for truth as they toppled the Nixon administration. But Davis reported on a different side of former naval intelligence officer Ben Bradlee.
Bradlee was a descendant of Boston bluebloods, and he landed at the Washington Post as a young reporter in 1948. After three years at the Post, Davis reported that Phillip Graham pulled a few strings to help Bradlee become a press attaché stationed at the U.S. embassy in Paris. While in France, Bradlee developed a number of overt, yet interesting, ties to the CIA. He divorced his first wife and married Antoinette Pinchot, whose sister was married to CIA agent Cord Meyer. Davis asserts Meyer was a “principal operative” in Operation Mockingbird. Bradlee’s French wife was also a close friend of the CIA’s James Jesus Angleton who at the time was responsible for the collection of foreign intelligence in Europe. Angleton was later chief of the CIA’s Counterintelligence for more than twenty years.
I’ve personally experienced guilt by association, and I’ve concluded that it’s often an ill-fated formula for speculation. But in the first printing of Katharine the Great, Davis wrote that Bradlee “produced CIA material” when he was a press attaché in Paris. According to Davis, Bradlee churned out CIA propaganda regarding the Rosenbergs’ case as a response to the French newspaper, Le Monde, which ran a story declaring that the U.S. had framed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were the couple accused of imparting A-bomb secrets to the Soviets and sentenced to death. The Le Monde article outraged the CIA chief in Paris, because the agency was having difficulties selling the Cold War to a European public who feared that the McCarthy witch-hunts were ushering in a new wave of fascism.
After Bradlee read Katharine the Great, he quickly dispatched a threatening letter to Davis’ publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, one of the largest book publishers in the world. Bradlee’s letter made some very unbecoming statements about Davis: “Miss Davis is lying … I never produced CIA material … what I can do is to brand Miss Davis as a fool and to put your company in that special little group of publishers who don’t give a shit for the truth.”
William Jovanovich, president and CEO of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, apparently didn’t want to be branded in that “little group of publishers who don’t give a shit for the truth” by one of the most powerful newspapers in the country, so he ordered 20,000 copies of Katharine the Great to be destroyed, even though the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich catalog announced that Katharine the Great would be their top non-fiction selection and the publisher even nominated the book for an American Book Award. After Jovanovich turned 20,000 of Katharine the Great into pulp, he received a letter from none other than Graham (AKA, Katherine the Great): “The whole theme of the book is so fanciful,” wrote Katharine Graham, “that it defies serious discussion: that Ben, Phil (her deceased husband), and others worked for the CIA . . .”
Davis sued Harcourt Brace for breach of contract. The case was eventually settled, and the rights for the book reverted back to Davis, but she couldn’t find a major publisher who had the nerve to flirt with Katharine the Great. Finally, about seven years later, a small publisher in D.C. republished the book. In the interim, Davis sent several Freedom of Information Act requests to the government and landed some interesting documentation from the State Department about the fact that Bradlee “produced CIA material.”
The State Department documents uncovered by Davis stated that three days after the Le Monde article appeared, the Paris CIA chief dispatched Bradlee to New York to collect materials from the federal prosecutors on the Rosenberg case, so the CIA could mount a counter-offensive in the European press. Bradlee ultimately wrote a 30,000-word rundown and analysis of the government’s case against the Rosenbergs with the CIA’s topspin.
After Bradlee’s tenure as a press attaché in Europe, he became a Paris-based foreign correspondent for Newsweek. I’ve already mentioned Davis reporting that the CIA’s Wisner said he “owned” several media outlets, including Newsweek. In 1957, Bradlee returned to the United States, and he continued to write for Newsweek as a Washington bureau correspondent.
Bradlee’s career at Newsweek took an upward but enigmatic twist in 1961. The cover story purports that Newsweek was up for sale, and Bradlee made a late night phone call to a man he barely knew—Philip Graham—and inquired if Graham wanted to purchase Newsweek. It just so happened that Graham thought it was an outstanding idea, and seventeen days later he shelled out $15 million to acquire Newsweek. He then made Bradlee Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. After Graham’s suicide in 1963, Graham’s widow eventually bestowed the title of managing editor of the Washington Post on Bradlee in 1965. (Interestingly, Frank Wisner committed suicide two years after Philip Graham.)
Rolling Stone published a 1977 article about the CIA’s infiltration of the media that was penned by Carl Bernstein. The Bernstein article was published in the wake of the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee hearings that investigated a plethora of domestic and foreign crimes committed by the CIA. Although Bernstein wrote his Rolling Stonearticle under the auspices of uncovering the Church Committee’s cover up between the CIA and media, I believe it’s within the realm of reason that Bernstein’s article covered up the Washington Post’slinks to the CIA. Bernstein’s Rolling Stone article made no mention of Bradlee’s ties to the CIA, and, in fact, almost exonerates the Washington Post staff of any ties to the CIA: “All editors‑in‑chief and managing editors of the Post since 1950 say they knew of no formal Agency relationship with either stringers or members of the Post staff. ‘If anything was done it was done by Phil without our knowledge,’ said one. Agency officials, meanwhile, make no claim that Post staff members have had covert affiliations with the Agency while working for the paper.”
Given Philip Graham’s zealous overtures to ingratiate the CIA with numerous media corporations and publications, and his padding the ranks of the Washington Post with former intelligence officers, I feel it broaches absurd to think that he didn’t avail the Washington Post to the CIA’s endeavors.
The Politics of Sex, Lies, and Blackmail