According to an unsubstantiated article by the Washington Post, anonymous CIA officials have confirmed that the Russian government hacked the United States election to favor Donald Trump. Though it’s entirely possible the Russian government attempted to influence the election, the Post has been widely criticized — for the second time in a month — for its failure to follow basic journalistic practices. Nevertheless, the narrative is sticking.
But the outlet’s behind-the-scenes relationship with the CIA is nothing new. In 2013, a conflict of interest arose shortly after Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, purchased the newspaper. As the Nation reported at the time:
“[Jeff Bezos] recently secured a $600 million contract from the CIA. That’s at least twice what Bezos paid for the Post this year. Bezos recently disclosed that the company’s Web-services business is building a ‘private cloud’ for the CIA to use for its data needs.”
As this occurred, a petition calling on the Washington Post to disclose its new ties to the CIA when reporting on the agency garnered 30,000 signatures. According to the RootsforAction petition:
“The Post often does report on CIA activities. The coverage should include full disclosure that the owner of the Washington Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.”
Robert McChesney of the Institute for Public Accuracy pointed out the glaring conflict of interest:
“If some official enemy of the United States had a comparable situation—say the owner of the dominant newspaper in Caracas was getting $600 million in secretive contracts from the Maduro government—the Post itself would lead the howling chorus impaling that newspaper and that government for making a mockery of a free press. It is time for the Post to take a dose of its own medicine.”
In its most recent article on the CIA’s claims of a Russian hack, the Post made no mention of its ties to the CIA. But while this connection calls into serious question the validity of a newspaper that claims to be a purveyor of “great journalism,” the connections are not enough to prove nefarious collaboration.
Unfortunately, however, history reveals actual collusion between the CIA and news outlets, including the Washington Post.
In 1977, Carl Bernstein, a former Post journalist, wrote about the CIA’s efforts to infiltrate the news media, often with the assistance of top management at the papers. In total, Bernstein reported, over 400 journalists were involved:
“Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services—from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go‑betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors-without-portfolio for their country…In many instances, CIA documents show, journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements of America’s leading news organizations.”
Though Bernstein failed to name the Post as an offender in his article, according to Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the CIA worked directly with the Washington Post, among many other outlets. In his comprehensive history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, Weiner wrote of the CIA’s first official chief, Allen Dulles:
“Dulles kept in close touch with the men who ran the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the nation’s leading weekly magazines. He could pick up the phone and edit a breaking story, make sure an irritating foreign correspondent was yanked from the field, or hire the services of men such as Time’s Berlin bureau chief and Newsweek’s man in Tokyo.”
“It was second nature for Dulles to plant stories in the press. American newsrooms were dominated by veterans of the government’s wartime propaganda branch, the Office of War Information.”
Dulles’ tenure lasted throughout the 1950s, and in 1954, for example, papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times promoted the narrative that Guatemala’s democratically-elected leader had ties to the Soviet Union and needed to be dealt with accordingly. The American news media helped create public support for a coup covertly backed by the CIA (interestingly, the Times also recently came out with an anonymously-sourced article claiming the CIA has determined Russia hacked the election). At the time, Frank Wisner, chair of the CIA’s Directorate of Plans — and whom Bernstein named as a key operator in the CIA’s relationship with news outlets — directly praised the Post’s piece.
Given this historical relationship, it’s no surprise that the Post and CIA have worked together in more recent decades.
In the 1980s, then-CIA Director Bill Casey appointed a man named Max Hugel as chief of the clandestine service, a small department within the CIA. But some agents disagreed with the appointment. Weiner explained:
“They dug up dirt on him, fed it to the Washington Post, and forced him out in less than two months.”
Whether or not the Post knew it was being used as a tool of intrigue by agents within the CIA is of little consequence. At best, they acted as “useful idiots” for schemers within the agency; at best, they knowingly aided the internal machinations of a spy agency.
The Post again served as a platform for warring factions within the CIA during the Bush years, when agents rebelled against Porter Goss, the director who replaced George Tenet after he resigned. Goss had vowed to repair the agency’s broken reputation but angered other agents with his seemingly radical approach. According to Weiner, agents took to the Los Angeles Times to criticize Goss (the Los Angeles Times recently faced backlash after one of its journalists was caught sharing stories with CIA agents before publication). The agents also took to the Washington Post to smear Goss:
“John McLaughin, who had held the agency together as acting director after Tenet’s resignation, delivered another riposte. The CIA was not ‘a dysfunctional and rogue agency,’ he wrote in the Washington Post. ‘The CIA was not institutionally plotting against the president.’”
Weiner notes that “in all the years that the agency had been battered in the press, never had the director been attacked in print, on the record, by the most senior veterans of American intelligence.”
The CIA also used its power in the media to silence a story published in the 1990s regarding the agency’s potential involvement in drug trafficking and the emergence of crack cocaine in black communities. Journalist Gary Webb had written an explosive investigative piece linking the agency to Contra fighters and the domestic drug market. Though the piece had shortcomings and reported on some already known information, as Peter Kornbluh of the Columbia Journalism Review noted, it was able to “revisit a significant story that had been inexplicably abandoned by the mainstream press, report a new dimension to it, and thus put it back on the national agenda where it belong[ed].”
Six weeks after the story broke, the CIA’s PR machine struck back. The Intercept notes the “CIA watched these developments closely, collaborating where it could with outlets who wanted to challenge Webb’s reporting.”
The Intercept summarized the account of Nicholas Dujmovic, who was a staffer at the CIA Directorate of Intelligence at the time:
“The agency supplied the press, ‘as well as former Agency officials, who were themselves representing the Agency in interviews with the media,’ with ‘these more balanced stories,’ Dujmovic wrote. The Washington Post proved particularly useful. ‘Because of the Post‘s national reputation, its articles especially were picked up by other papers, helping to create what the Associated Press called a “firestorm of reaction” against the San Jose Mercury News.’ Over the month that followed, critical media coverage of the series (‘balanced reporting’) far outnumbered supportive stories, a trend the CIA credited to the Post, The New York Times, ‘and especially the Los Angeles Times.’”
Given the CIA’s history of using media to accomplish both internal and external political goals, it’s possible — though admittedly wholly unconfirmed — this Post piece on Russia serves as yet another example of the clandestine agency using the paper as a tool to achieve its own ends.
Regardless, the Post continues to treat anonymous statements from the agency as fact, leading the way as countless other mainstream outlets parrot their narrative. Though it’s possible Russia did attempt to intervene in the U.S. election, there is little reason to trust information from an outlet with a history of collaborating with the agency spreading these claims.
Should any actual evidence of Russian hacking be produced, however, it’s likely the Post will be among the first to let us know.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Bob Casey was director of the CIA in the 1980s, not the 1990s.