The CIA’s Masterful Use of Fake News
In early 1954, writing in the magazine Encounter, F.R. Allemann slammed the ex-prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, for alleged abuses. In a “Letter from Teheran” titled “Persia: Land of Unrealities,” Allemann referred to Mosaddegh’s aborted term as a “pseudo-revolutionary pseudo-dictatorship” and claimed Mosaddegh could only cram laws through Iran’s Parliament by summoning thugs to street protests—that is, through demagoguery.
Allemann depicted Mosaddegh’s rallies as “terror campaign[s] of the political-religious secret societies” whose vocal support gave only the impression of a genuine mass movement. Lest the London-based magazine’s white, European readership miss these subtle cues to revile the out-of-office politician, Allemann, a Swiss journalist, offered his readers a buffet of Orientalist buzzwords. Rather than a rational leader elected by his people, Mosaddegh instead was a charismatic “dervish,” and “nobody was more inclined toward Munchausen escapades [like those of Mosaddegh’s incumbency] than the Oriental in general and the Persian in particular.”
Decades later, one must ask, where were Encounter’s fact-checkers? Contrary to the article, Mosaddegh was legally elected during a period of robust Iranian democracy, and he was known as a beloved leader and a fiery speaker. His was such an iconic voice for his people that he was voted Time magazine’s Man of the Year after being named prime minister. It was strange that such venom as Allemann’s should describe a popular democrat once praised by President Harry Truman. Was Allemann signaling some conflict between the respective interests of Mosaddegh and Encounter?
In fact, the magazine’s name signaled an “East-West Encounter”; it was intended to give its editors (and readers) wide cultural reach, from London and Western Europe all the way to Africa, India and East Asia. But what motive might Allemann have had to blame the out-of-office Mosaddegh for the nation’s current problems?
Mosaddegh was removed from office in an infamous 1953 coup that restored Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to the throne, leaving the shah’s allies in key posts and Mosaddegh incarcerated and then condemned to house arrest. Soon after the restoration of the shah to the throne, the CIA sent a U.S. Army colonel to build the organization that would become the infamous SAVAK, a secret police service that could censor, blacklist, torture and arrest Iranian citizens without due process.
From this standpoint, Allemann’s “Letter from Teheran” comes into focus. It appeared in Encounter more than a decade before the magazine was exposed as a CIA and British intelligence asset, though there were rumors throughout its existence that it had ties to Western intelligence through its parent organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom. When exposure came, a battery of solemn liberal intellectuals lined up to attest to the fact that—even if secret CIA subsidies had been necessary—Encounter, like the other highbrow CIA magazines, nevertheless did three things. First, it published great writers and writing. Second, it never censored. Third, the funding of intellectual work came, its defenders insisted, with no strings.
Although the first claim was true, as a perusal of the table of contents will show, what about the second and third? When it came to writers whose names had been tied to Encounter and the CIA’s cultural front, would they even know if editors had quietly censored views their bosses considered beyond the pale? And wouldn’t their bias in favor of the magazine’s excellence result from the very fact of their legacies now being tied to that presumed excellence? Strings indeed.
As relations between the U.S. and Iran again take on a hostile tone, it’s worth untangling the intricate braid of CIA claims and secret operations that knocked down rivals and labeled leftists and reformers in the U.S. and around the world as communists. The agency did this so that it could discredit, dehumanize, scare, oust and, in some cases, kill America’s perceived enemies in swift acts of force bolstered by bribes, blackmail, whisper campaigns, mass propaganda and, as we see in the case of Allemann, subtle acts of erasure in sophisticated intellectual magazines like Encounter. In fact, all these decades later, impulses to falsify the cultural CIA’s record remain lazily de rigueur.
Whose Terror Campaigns?
In the story of the Iran coup as told in the West, the name “Kashani” is not usually mentioned. But in fact, Ayatollah Seyyed Abolqassem Kashani best signals how, as Robert Dreyfuss details in “Devil’s Game,” “[t]he very same cleric-led, right-wing Islamists that toppled the shah in 1979 were paid by the CIA in 1953 to support him.”
It all got started when Kashani and Mosaddegh were united in the belief that Iranian oil profits should go not to the United Kingdom but, shockingly, to Iranians. This was a fairly common view emerging among developing nations in the wake of World War II. They wanted Western powers to respect their sovereignty and leave them their resources. Mosaddegh had been elected to Parliament quite young, pre-Pahlavi, and re-elected in 1944, and had been associated with the Qajar dynasty. Though this created occasional bad blood between him and the Pahlavi shahs, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi appointed Mosaddegh prime minister in 1951 when the shah’s previous appointee, Gen. Ali Razmara, was assassinated. Both Mosaddegh and the shah were modernizers, and even the shah favored nationalization, sovereignty and independence, at least until the CIA made him an offer he was not permitted to refuse.
As prime minister, Mosaddegh was chairman of the Parliament’s oil commission and had created a coalition movement called the National Front. The National Front included a patchwork of Iranian nationalists, including members of the ulema, who favored a modern, independent and Islamic state. The nationalist impulses of these conservative ayatollahs embraced the front’s nationalization of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, also known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and, later, British Petroleum. Though there was some division, these members of the country’s conservative believers despised the shah’s infringement on their religious rights, while an added nationalism kept many of them in the coalition.
As the story of the coup is usually recounted, the British complained to the Americans about losing their oil monopoly, and American Democrats defended Mosaddegh, but when the prime minister wouldn’t promise the Americans their own concessions, Truman abandoned him. In came the Republicans under President Eisenhower. The British convinced the Eisenhower administration that Mosaddegh was as good as a communist and that his nationalization might send a message of American weakness to Soviet and international onlookers.
The Americans bought into the plot. The first step was to win over the shah, who annulled Mosaddegh’s rule in a royal decree. When this led to chaos, the shah fled to Italy, and was only convinced to resume his involvement through bribes and bullying by the CIA. One iconic visual for this is the infamous mink coat, which the CIA dangled before the shah’s twin sister to induce her to cajole her brother to sign onto the coup, after its initial failure had made him squeamish.
The next move was to pry apart Mosaddegh’s coalition, united around nationalization of territory and resources. This meant peeling off the mullahs from that coalition and justifying U.S. actions in the media. A secret marriage was consecrated between Western policymakers and the ayatollahs of the ulema, who were bribed to summon crowds against the legitimate government of Mosaddegh in order to bring it down. A marriage of convenience less than love, it would return in the annals of the CIA’s cultural Cold War, in contested places like Afghanistan, not to mention 1979 Iran.
The marriage between Western intelligence and ayatollahs gave rise, then, to exactly the sort of “terror campaign[s] of the political-religious secret societies” that Encounter falsely blamed on Mosaddegh. But before Encounter was enlisted to do post-coup cleanup, the plotters tapped journalist Kennett Love to do so in real time. In his New York Times obituary, Love was remembered for his role in the coup: “Mr. Love’s reporting [in the Times] may have played a small part in the  coup,” the obituary writer gently conceded. “He and a reporter for The Associated Press wrote about decrees signed by the Shah that called for General Zahedi to replace Mr. Mossadegh. The release of the decrees, which helped legitimize the coup, was engineered by the C.I.A., though Mr. Love insisted later that he had been unaware of the agency’s involvement.”
But how did the Americans win over the ayatollahs? In the same way that the British had: by purchasing their loyalty through bribes. Bribed frequently by the British, the ayatollahs had even been teased by the shah’s sister, who wrote in her memoir that if you lifted one of their beards you’d see stamped on their necks the phrase “Made in England.” Funding and collaborating with hard-liners who would become the agency’s future adversaries was one link in a long chain of CIA blunders.
In fact, the same Ayatollah Khomeini who later overthrew the shah and thereby jettisoned so-called American interests used the very method the Americans had used, learned via his teacher and spiritual godfather, Kashani: throngs of zealous mobs flooding the streets aligned against Mosaddegh as Encounter’s “terror campaign[s] of the political-religious secret societies.” But Allemann’s revision of the facts—on the record but little noted for decades—raises important questions about the CIA’s respected intellectual magazines. If the magazines were run with no strings, how did the CIA keep leftists, America’s critics and others out of their pages? As an agency created to prosecute the Cold War, how did the CIA justify the outlay of money for culture without regularly engaging in disinformation, or what one critic called Encounter’s “paranoiac throb of genuine propaganda”?
In her landmark history of Encounter (which ceased publication in 1991) and the other CIA magazines, as part of the greater “cultural Cold War,” Frances Stonor Saunders found that some of Encounter’s creators were also plotters of the Iran coup, such as Christopher Montague Woodhouse, who in some cases wrote for the magazine. In “Who Paid the Piper?” she notes further that the tale of the magazine never censoring was itself a myth, contradicted in its editorial archives. In researching my book, “Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers,” I found the same official censorship at work in the archives of such magazines for the developing world as Combate and Cuadernos Para La Libertad de la Cultura, both for Latin America. The CIA ’s lauded intellectual magazines indeed routinely censored, a censorship explicitly built into the editors’ marching orders.
No small thing to find in an archive: a confession.
Saunders further cited the occasional example of Encounter’s trolling, apologetics or misinforming on behalf of Western geostrategic interests. But “Who Paid the Piper?” is better on the omission of censored articles than on these commissions, cases in which the magazines misinformed their readers, likely deliberately. Used selectively, lest it draw too much attention, this disinformation appears consistently in the magazines’ archives, presumably published to erase what really happened during the agency’s coups, ballot stuffing and other penetrations of countries far and near. Some examples follow.
The Guatemala Coup
A year after the Iran coup, the CIA decided to topple another elected leader. Jacobo Arbenz had been elected president of Guatemala in 1950. Affectionately nicknamed “the Swiss,” Arbenz represented the first successful democratic transfer of power from one elected leader to another, in what came to be known as the country’s “democratic spring.” But when Arbenz proposed to buy back unused land from the behemoth United Fruit Company, to distribute to farmers to grow the middle class and reboot the economy, the foreign policy officials who sat on its board flinched. Rather than countenance a possible drop in stock value, they lobbied Eisenhower to overthrow Arbenz. This was a path that, effectively, meant destroying Guatemalan democracy for decades to come.
To prepare for the coup, the CIA schemed to create chaos in the small Central American state. It set up fake-news radio stations that made the ragtag rebel movement appear much larger than it was. CIA planes dropped pamphlets on one pass over a village and strafed the villagers on the next, blaming Arbenz for the chaos. To win support within the United States, Arbenz needed to be made over into a communist stooge. When New York Times reporter Sydney Gruson denied that Arbenz was a communist, the CIA had him yanked from his post. At the same time, the intellectual magazines pitched in to mold elite opinion. The New Leader was not a CIA-created magazine, but the agency offered to fund it in the late 1940s so it could continue to rally the anti-communist cause. In the period between Arbenz’s election and the coup, the magazine ran Daniel James’ “Is Guatemala Communist?” (One edition of James’s biography of Che Guevara asks in the introduction, “Did the CIA encourage James to … attack the image of Che Guevara? … One cannot be sure, but it seems likely.”) The New Leader also took money directly from United Fruit, disguised through ads for such charities as the Red Cross. As a magazine published in the United States, The New Leader’s ties to the CIA were especially complex, largely because the agency’s charter prevented it from operating in the United States, alongside a ban on propaganda at home.
After the coup, just as Encounter’s Allemann had erased who was Iran’s democrat and who was its “quasi-dictator,” another CIA-paid intellectual helped give the new dictator a makeover. At least on one occasion, Julian Gorkin, editor of the CIA’s Cuadernos, gave the new Guatemalan dictator a platform by reading out his greeting and sanctioning it before a cultural congress. This was met with general skepticism. Why, Gorkin asked, did Latin Americans denounce Castillo Armas as a strongman “struggling against democratic legality represented by Arbenz,” rather than a liberator who had “freed his country from a communist dictatorship?”
The U.S. and Desegregation
In the summer of 1958, Encounter hired Scottish author D.W. Brogan to say something encouraging about segregation. Brogan did so in his review of “The Deep South Says ‘Never,’ ” a title weirdly at odds with Encounter’s image as a liberal bastion. In the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the climate in the South and across the nation was dire. As described by Brogan, the book centered not on the voices of civil rights movement heroes or their constituents—who were being lynched and persecuted in retaliation for the decision—but instead on racist Southern whites, who bristled at the imposition of having to follow U.S. law.
Explicitly taking the side of this white spokesman for “the South,” Brogan warned white liberals, black Americans and civil rights leaders to slow down, insisting that the never-integrationist Southerner “will wear down the North; the North will learn as ‘the nigras’ pour in, the realities of the racial situation. …” Brogan added that there was “some justice in the gibe of a defender of white supremacy [who said]: ‘I think the Southern people have been very patient with our good Northern brethren. They’ve got the answer and we’ve got the problem.’ ” Brogan next called into question the sincerity of the “Northern egalitarian,” citing a hypothetical liberal lawyer, “who knows that, if he sends his children … to his neighbourhood public school, they will be swamped by Negro children three or four years behindhand … barely housebroken, and with, as adolescents, a habit of violence that arouses natural alarm.” In the end, writes Brogan, he “may decide that he doesn’t believe in desegregation as much as all that and send his children to a private school.”
Likewise, the CIA’s intellectual magazine for France—Preuves—was tapped in the 1950s to run a story called “Egalitarisme aux USA” to rebut a French left-wing journal’s report of links between the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan. Preuves’ brain trust sought Ernest van den Haag for the rebuttal. Van den Haag was a desegregation skeptic most notable for what he would write elsewhere during the period: “One need not be a psychologist to see that many, even of the previously indifferent or well-disposed, are likely to turn against the Negroes: Southern resentment … is likely to be shifted to those supposed to benefit from it.” It was as if the writers in Encounter and Preuves had been given the same conservative script, the latter going on to ask, “Is it less damaging for the Negro children to go to school together with resentful whites than separately?”
If you search the archives of Encounter for “desegregation,” you’ll find precious few examples of the topic recorded (only one in the 1950s). (Compare that with the phrases “fellow traveler” or “communist line,” of which there are dozens in the 1950s and ’60s alone.) America’s race contortions could hardly present the great democratic superpower in a decent light in its quest to remake itself as the savior of freedom. This makeover was the magazine’s self-defined first responsibility. With Preuves and Encounter aimed at European audiences, the topic would be especially taboo. But then why run apology pieces if these magazines were intended for liberal readers? Like Preuves, Encounter was distributed in the United States through the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s American annex. Legally, this was as problematic as The New Leader’s CIA ties.
By the time the CIA overthrew leftist President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s highbrow magazines had been exposed as an agency asset, and therefore less useful. But the agency was taking active measures against Allende a decade earlier, when Encounter was still a major player in the propaganda game. According to Evan Thomas, the CIA spent $3 million, paying a dollar per vote, as he put it, to fix Chile’s 1964 elections for Allende’s opponent, Eduardo Frei. U.S. taxpayers bought those votes largely through print and radio ads, but they also unwittingly purchased outright such outlets as the conservative mouthpiece El Mercurio. After 3 million thumbs on the scale proved decisive, Encounter tapped British journalist Brian Crozier to write “Latin American Journey,” a thinly disguised victory lap. Crozier was a savvy operator, described by The New York Times as a CIA contract agent, making his contribution to Encounter a manner of double-dipping for CIA cash.
Writing to lionize our man in Santiago, Crozier warms up by describing Allende as “round, vigorous, jowled and slightly shifty, and he bought his own badge as bogeyman when he accepted the Communists as allies. … That Sunday, he was out of form and short of temper.” Frei is sketched, on the other hand, as if he is being measured for a spot on Mount Rushmore: “Eduardo Frei Montalva, now President-elect of Chile, is the rising hope of Latin Americans who are Christian enough to feel for the ragged poor who cluster round the continent’s tiny islands of affluence, and western-minded enough to want to do something without putting dissidents or reactionaries behind barbed wire.” The irony was rich. In the pages of Encounter, a CIA contract agent praises his bosses’ Manchurian candidate who has just won a CIA-sponsored “democratic” victory with, obviously, no allusion to the U.S. role. (The irony was even better when Woodhouse, of Iran coup fame, reviewed Crozier’s 1960 book on rebellions and revolutions, spy reviewing spy for an Uncle Sam flagship propaganda rag.)
When, a year later, leftist journalists exposed a mass penetration of Chile’s universities by social scientists secretly on the U.S. Army payroll, The Public Interest ran an “autopsy” of the program by University of California professor Robert Nisbet. Co-founded in 1965 by Irving Kristol, the budding neoconservative mouthpiece was launched with a secret infusion of at least $10,000 in CIA seed money. Changing the subject from the illegal violation of Chilean sovereignty, Nisbet’s snarky acknowledgement of U.S. meddling pivoted to a brisk defense of the “behavioral sciences” as a tool for making U.S. interventions smarter. But lest he emphasize the interventionism as such, he praised the generous funding and import placed on said sciences, allowing it to do really “big things.” Meanwhile, Nisbet mocked Chilean outrage and its leftist media, suggesting that without revelations like this, the left-wing press in Chile was reduced to more dreary copy. And to make sure liberal Latin Americans read it, another CIA intellectual magazine, Mundo Nuevo, had the piece translated into Spanish and published it in full (read the English version reproduced here).
Indonesia: Two Coups
“It was an anti-Communist blood bath … American officials watched … at times even applauding the forces behind the killing.” Thus did The New York Times describe events in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, when half a million Indonesians were killed. But in “Indonesia Confronted,” a piece designed to blame Indonesia’s problems on its geography and culture, Encounter contributor Herbert Luthy fails to mention the U.S. role, which was secret, but he doubles down on the misdirection by describing the U.S. posture toward Indonesia as exceedingly charitable. Timed, as well, to blame the chaos on Sukarno (as Crozier had blamed Allende and Allemann had blamed Mosaddegh), Luthy interlaced his pan d’horizon of Indonesia’s struggles with more Orientalist buzzwords: “Together with these [other leaders] … the few brilliant administrators and economists Indonesia possessed … were eliminated in favour of crowd-mesmerising tribunes of the people. The decisive turning-point in 1956-57 was symptomatic of the choice between a ‘rational’ policy and a policy of national mystique.”
During the (first) 1958 coup, launched under Eisenhower, the U.S. armed tens of thousands of anti-communist Indonesians to rebel against their government. Without apparent irony, Luthy writes that “the United States were always ready to rescue Sukarno from every shipwreck.” The irony is that the U.S. bombed Indonesians literally to shipwreck; on one bombing run alone, on an April Sunday, one U.S. pilot allegedly managed to kill 400 civilians. When the U.S. denied it was involved, another pilot crashed; helpfully, he was carrying his ID and mission papers, so Sukarno was able to demonstrate the U.S. lie when it disclaimed involvement there.
While Luthy was writing, though, a second coup was unfolding under Lyndon Johnson’s leadership. U.S. officials were handing the Indonesian military lists of suspected leftists, and the military was committing wholesale murder of, on average, as many as 80,000 Indonesians per month, with students, labor leaders and ethnic Chinese among the victims. Two months into a military slaughter that would last for six months, and would see Sukarno furloughed and then deposed, Luthy saw fit to note: “The element of vaudeville is never entirely absent from the Indonesian scene.” Nor are the ironies of secret publishing absent from the archives of Encounter, which ran ads in its Indian magazine Quest that read, “Time and again you will find that your own problems, the problems of the Far East, are illuminated by articles in Encounter.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which grew out of the Iranian Revolution. Pictures from the protests show signs in English that say the “Shah is a U.S. Puppet. Down with the Shah!” reminding us how the shah returned to power in the first place. One former participant described the revolution as a conscious response to the CIA’s 1953 coup. But the lessons from all these decades of bellicosity against the Islamic republic appear to have been lost on Democrats as well as Republicans.
Not only were the actions themselves a kind of operational blowback, The New York Times noted that the propaganda could be exposed abroad while being believed in the United States. Officers who created the propaganda “said they had been concerned about but helpless to avoid the potential ‘blowback’—the possibility that the C.I.A. propaganda … some of it purposely misleading or downright false, might be picked up by American reporters overseas and included in their dispatches to their publications at home.” Evidence suggests this was rampant, if not as passive as those former officers describe.
Such covert actions as the 1953 coup, the 1954 coup, the Bay of Pigs, the Indonesian coups, the Vietnam War and countless others tended to start and close with propaganda that was effectively fake news. In the beginning is a monster we must overthrow; in the end, anything questioning our motives or our results must be written off to operational mishaps or falsified outright. This was the case even when the propaganda itself was exposed. And if even sophisticated magazines aimed at the liberal noncommunist elite got so much of the history wrong, no wonder Americans are confused about our role in the world. No wonder intellectuals have so often played the role of cheerleaders for U.S. interventions.
Clearly, Barack Obama’s Iran deal was better than what Donald Trump has already done, and may yet do. Most recently, national security adviser John Bolton secretly asked the military for plans for an invasion. But if Trump’s hawkishness is the problem in Iran—as is the spirit embodied by the pushback to it, and rightly so—why was there so little protest among liberals over Obama’s interventions in South and Central Asian countries where alleged radicals were droned regularly? Or over his escalations and surges in Yemen, Afghanistan, Honduras and elsewhere?
In fact, it was under the Obama administration that a defense authorization bill passed that rescinded the decades-old ban on domestic propaganda, resulting in the 2016 election being the first since before the Cold War when propaganda by American officials aimed at American audiences was legal.
Was this why the 2016 election—with its fake cries over fake news on the right by the latest Fox News president, and with the wide circulation and whispering over intelligence ops like the Steele dossier among Democrats—felt so unprecedented? Not unprecedented overseas, where we made its equivalent happen many times over, but here.
The answers may be (at least partly) illuminated by articles in Encounter, where, in tandem with their more hawkish and blatant conservative collaborators, liberals, too, learned to lie for the cause.