Review of “Bureau of Spies: The Secret Connections Between Espionage and Journalism in Washington” by Steven T. Usdin

In recent times we have been absorbed by the problem of the barrage of fake news and the attempts of a hostile foreign government to influence elections. Steven Usdin shows this not a new phenomenon, and that practitioners have included not only enemies but allies, and also Americans who served within our own government. Historically, tactics have ranged from engineered public opinion polls, dirty tricks, and the release of classified military secrets, to the perpetration of outright lies. Desired outcomes have been as relatively innocuous as swaying public opinion to the more nefarious aim of inducing “alarm, despondency and bewilderment….”

Much of the espionage conducted by all sides was long headquartered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This book aims to tell the history of the connections between intelligence work and subversive propaganda on the one hand, and journalism on the other.

Each chapter has astonishing revelations, based on research by the author that included interviews with retired intelligence officials, as well as information gleaned from declassified and leaked intelligence documents. There are extensive footnotes and links to online sources at the end of the book.

Almost from the time the National Press Building opened in 1927, spies flocked to work there. They found appealing the state-of-the-art communications systems as well as the camaraderie and conversations in the bar and around the card tables that invariably yielded up secrets. The offices in the National Press Building quickly became filled with a mix of real reporters and professional spies. Usdin writes about the pre-World War II period:

“Mingling among the thousands of legitimate journalists, lawyers, and lobbyists who reported to the building every day, they [spies] pursued covert agendas: plotting to make America safe for plutocrats by overthrowing the government, inciting racial hatred in pursuit of an imaginary homogeneous past, giving Stalin’s espionage networks a foothold in Washington, and conspiring with British intelligence officers to shape American public opinion and defeat politicians who advocated neutrality.”

The Press Club, he observed, “came to resemble Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca.”

Shockingly, before the West knew the truth about Stalin, the U.S. was literally so teeming with American communist sympathizers that the NKVD (the intelligence service of the Soviet Union) warned they were running out of the 35 mm film used to make copies of all the stolen classified information!

Usdin documents how military secrets leaked in 1941 by American reporters who were isolationists literally changed the course of the war. The secret report was seen by Hitler, who almost changed his European strategy, and helped influence the Japanese to attack as soon as possible, which they did in December, 1941.

In every chapter I flagged information that flabbergasted me about this or that American who turned out to have worked for the NKVD, from the journalist I.F. Stone to members of Congress, to the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, to a senior assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt. Worse yet, there were titans of industry who supported Hitler, from the chairman of DuPont to the chairman of General Motors. Then there were all the surprising revelations about Americans who worked for the CIA, including Eugene Fodor, who used the cover of writing travel guides to gather information from all over.

Journalist I.F. Stone in 1972

Some who worked for the CIA, like Philip Agee, became so disgusted by the covert operations of the agency that they defected, and not only exposed what they knew, but began working with the Soviet KGB instead (the successor to the NKVD).

U.S. Presidents don’t come out in a very positive light in this book. FDR had a secret “M Project” to study options for post-war migration (hence the “M”). Roosevelt, like his cousin and predecessor in office Theodore Roosevelt, believed that whites were of a superior racial “stock.” He did not include Jews in the category of “whites.” He appointed Aleš Hrdlička, a white supremacist who worked at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, to head up a study group for the M Project. The goals for the committee, Roosevelt said, were to identify “the vacant places of the earth suitable for post-war settlement” and how the populations could be apportioned to create mixing for a superior genetic result. Usdin writes that “the president also tasked the committee with determining how to ‘resettle the Jews on the [far away] land and keep them there.’” (You can access the correspondence regarding the M Project at the FDR library, here.)

Immigrants viewing Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island. National Archives photo

Subsequent administrations fare not much better in Usdin’s telling. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all wanted the FBI and CIA to spy on reporters and wiretap them illegally to find the source of leaks. William Colby, Director of the CIA from September 1973 to January 1976, claimed that disseminating fake news all over the world, and using the press to help, “supported freedom.” Usdin writes:

“Colby and other former CIA officials conceded the possibility that foreign propaganda could harm US interests if false news planted overseas returned to the United States and not only misled the American public but was also taken as real by policymakers. Colby said the risk of CIA disinformation corrupting American policy was minimal, but in fact as the world became ever more interconnected, it became inevitable.”

This observation segues nicely into his ending, in which he avers that the concerns over attempted subversion through misinformation are more relevant than ever. Further, he observes that not only do attempts by governments to manipulate news continue unabated. He points to a different threat promulgated by both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump: undermining any confidence in the news media itself, “to create so much cacophonous noise that people believe there is no such thing as truth, or that it is impossible to distinguish between truth and lies.” He concludes:

“When a bogus story can bounce from a bedroom in Montenegro, Montevideo, or Mar-a-Lago to millions of smartphones in an instant, and elected officials remain silent in the face of torrents of lies spewing out of the White House, traditional journalism may be the only defense against autocracy and nihilism.”

Trump and Putin: No such thing as “truth”

But “traditional journalism” is being overrun. As Christopher Browning writes in “The Suffocation of Democracy” in the New York Review of Books:

“Upon his appointment as chancellor, Hitler immediately created a new Ministry of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, who remained one of his closest political advisers.

In Trump’s presidency, those functions have effectively been privatized in the form of Fox News and Sean Hannity. Fox faithfully trumpets the ‘alternative facts’ of the Trump version of events, and in turn Trump frequently finds inspiration for his tweets and fantasy-filled statements from his daily monitoring of Fox commentators and his late-night phone calls with Hannity. The result is the creation of a ‘Trump bubble’ for his base to inhabit that is unrecognizable to viewers of PBS, CNN, and MSNBC and readers of The Washington Post and The New York Times. The highly critical free media not only provide no effective check on Trump’s ability to be a serial liar without political penalty; on the contrary, they provide yet another enemy around which to mobilize the grievances and resentments of his base. A free press does not have to be repressed when it can be rendered irrelevant and even exploited for political gain.”

Evaluation: This important book sheds light on and raises questions about practices that have become central to our current time. The assault on truth is not a new phenomenon, but it has gained new potency because of global access to media, and the increasing use of social media as a source of information.

This would make an excellent choice for book clubs; there is much to learn and discuss, and enough eye-popping revelations to satisfy anyone normally adverse to non-fiction.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Prometheus Books, 2018


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2 Responses to Review of “Bureau of Spies: The Secret Connections Between Espionage and Journalism in Washington” by Steven T. Usdin

  1. Kay says:

    Doesn’t that sound so very interesting? Wonder if it’s available on audio yet. I’ll watch for this one.

  2. Beth F says:

    This looks like one for Mr. BFR — I’ll have to tell him about it.

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