The American people depend on a free press to keep a close and impartial watch on the national security operations that are carried out in our name. But in many cases, this trust is sadly misplaced, as leading journalists are seduced and manipulated by the secretive agencies they cover.
While the press remains silent about its corrupting relationship with the intelligence community - a relationship that dates back to the Cold War - Spooking the News will blow the lid off this unseemly arrangement. Schou will name names and shine a spotlight on flagrant examples of collusion, when respected reporters have crossed the line and sold out to powerful agencies. The book will also document how the CIA has embedded itself in "liberal" Hollywood to ensure that its fictional spies get the hero treatment on screen.
Among the revelations in Spooking the News:
- The CIA created a special public affairs unit to influence the production of Hollywood films and TV shows, allowing celebrities involved in pro-CIA projects - including Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck - unique access inside the agency's headquarters.
- The CIA vets articles on controversial topics like the drone assassination program and grants friendly reporters background briefings on classified material, while simultaneously prosecuting ex-officers who spill the beans on damaging information.
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"I Eat Pretty Much Anything"
On December 23, 2013, in response to a pair of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the Central Intelligence Agency released 574 pages of emails between various national security reporters and the agency's public affairs office. The massive trove of material remained out of the public eye for a year, but in late 2014, it finally surfaced in a series of articles published by the online investigative magazine, the Intercept. The articles landed like a bombshell, revealing how some of America's most prominent national security reporters were functioning essentially as unpaid CIA assets, sending the agency detailed story notes and, in at least one case, entire drafts of articles prior to publication.
Roughly half of the released emails concerned just one reporter, Siobhan Gorman, who recently left the Wall Street Journal for a better paying job with Brunswick, a privately held global communications company. Her email communications with the agency revealed her interest in touring the agency's Langley headquarters, writing a story about its gym, and securing a personal meeting with then-agency director, David Petraeus, who the CIA confirmed to Gorman was fond of running six-minute-miles during work breaks and would give face-to-face interviews to any reporter who could run a mile in under seven minutes.
In March 2012, Gorman accepted the CIA's invitation to an "off-the-record dinner" with Petraeus. "Great! Do you have any food allergies?" an agency public affairs officer replied. "Nope," Gorman confided, "I eat pretty much anything." (Petraeus ultimately lost his job after sharing classified information with his biographer, mistress, and fellow workout fanatic, Paula Broadwell, who authored a book based on her special-access relationship with the general appropriately titled All In.)
In a separate exchange of emails that month between Gorman and a CIA press officer, whose name was redacted by the agency, she passed along a tip from a "colleague" at the Wall Street Journal who had told her that he had heard a rumor that there had been an assassination attempt against President Hafez al-Assad of Syria. "Happy Sunday! A colleague heard that Assad has been shot," begins Gorman's cheerful note. "Sounds unlikely, but it's a crazy time. Any truth to that?" Promising to look into the rumor, Gorman's agency contact inquired if her colleague was in Syria. "No," Gorman responded, continuing in the same share-too-much-information vein. "This colleague is actually the editor of the paper."
In a subsequent email, Gorman thanked the press officer for his help. "As I mentioned, tips from our editor don't always pan out but we have to check because it's from our editor and he claims to talk frequently to people in MI-6," she explained, referring to the British intelligence agency. A few months later, on May 1, Gorman sent the CIA an email titled "Translating the UBL Trove" in which she asked for an update on the agency's efforts to pull useful intelligence from Osama bin Laden's computer files, which had been seized exactly a year earlier, during the raid on his Pakistani compound in which the world's most wanted man was killed. "Hi guys, so do I wish you a happy anniversary today?" she asked, sounding just like one of the gang at Langley.
The CIA's response to that email (along with nearly every other one in the entire file) was completely redacted, presumably not to protect US national security (because why would the agency be divulging top secret information in emails to reporters?) but more likely because of the embarrassing light they shed on the incestuous relationship between journalists and the agency's PR department. Yet even the less damaging material that somehow made it past CIA censors reveals the extent to which, far from acting like a watchdog protecting the public from government excesses, the US national security press has almost completely fallen under the spell of the powerful intelligence complex it purports to monitor.
Langley's press relations officers, who asked to remain anonymous, claim their job is more difficult now than ever, especially in the current media landscape where anyone with a computer can post potentially damaging information online that can quickly be picked up by a succession of blogs or websites before exploding on social media platforms like Twitter. The media terrain is indeed more challenging for the intelligence community since 2013, when former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden began leaking a stream of top-secret files on the NSA's massive surveillance operations directed against American citizens, and even friendly governments. The Snowden revelations, along with the earlier WikiLeaks release of shocking documents and videos related to America's post 9/11 wars obtained from army whistle-blower Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, shifted the ground under the espionage empire's feet.
These days, security officials sometimes feel they are playing catch-up with a new world of anonymous hackers and independent bloggers. "Since Snowden, we are unsuccessful ninety percent of the time," one CIA spokesperson glumly estimated, in reference to his efforts to convince reporters to either kill a story or delay it, at least long enough for the agency to protect its undercover assets and operations — or to protect Langley's ass. "The hard part for us is we can't comment, so we have to do this weird Kabuki dance and say, 'If you publish this story, this is what will happen.' I don't have any control over the media," he insisted. "All I can do is to make a case not to publish the story, but usually we are unsuccessful because sensitive information has already been leaked."
The Intercept, which the CIA spokesperson specifically cited as an example of a hostile media outlet, has published a string of embarrassing stories about the CIA's recent excesses in the past few years. The most notable was "The Drone Papers," based on leaked paperwork supplied by a high-level intelligence source showing that far more innocent civilians than suspected militants have been killed by US remote-controlled air strikes, in fact by a stunning ratio of six to one. More alarming (to the CIA, at least) than the leaked documents themselves is the fact that the leaker is apparently someone other than Edward Snowden, who earlier had provided one of the Intercept's founding editors, Glenn Greenwald, a former blogger for the Guardian and Salon, with reams of classified NSA material. (The Intercept's other founding editors are Laura Poitras — the second person Snowden approached, and whose documentary Citizenfour chronicled Greenwald's meeting with Snowden in Hong Kong — and Jeremy Scahill, the best-selling author of the books Blackwater and Dirty Wars.)
Then there's the online magazine VICE News, which employs one of the most aggressive and intrepid national security reporters in the business, Jason Leopold, whom the FBI has dubbed a "FOIA terrorist" for his extensive use of the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to government documents. Leopold, who lives in Los Angeles, is a rare example of a national security reporter who doesn't work in Washington, D.C. "There's a reason for that," he said in a recent interview just days after returning from Capitol Hill, where he testified to Congress about how US intelligence agencies have deliberately stymied his Freedom of Information Act efforts at extracting government information in the public interest. Living outside the Beltway, conceded Leopold, limited his "immediate access — but that means I become much more aggressive in terms of trying to get information, and I don't fall victim to 'access journalism.' Being in D.C. just for a week, I mean you can get completely swallowed by this bureaucracy and become chummy-chummy with people, whereas I want to keep that distance."
Bryan Bender, Politico's defense editor, who has covered the national security beat from within Washington, D.C., for more than a decade, agreed with that assessment. "If you are a journalist covering the national security state, there is often a price for access," Bender acknowledged. "You don't just call up the CIA and say, 'I am doing a story; please answer my questions.' If you are lucky, they will be helpful. But if they are going to be helpful, it's usually because they have already decided that you're a good reporter and you're going to be fair to them."
* * *
Despite the CIA's complaints about a news pack that has supposedly become more snarling since Snowden, most reporters working the national security beat are still happy to play by the agency's rules, which includes giving Langley's public affairs office at least a day's notice of an impending story. The Washington press extends the same courtesy to allied intelligence agencies. One example involves the publication of the identity of "Jihadi John," the Islamic State terrorist responsible for several beheadings of hostages, including reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning, and Peter Kassig. As first reported by Washington Post reporter Adam Goldman, the masked executioner was actually a Kuwaiti-born British national named Mohammed Emwazi. (Emwazi was killed by an American drone strike in Raqqa, Syria, in late 2015.) When Goldman informed British intelligence he was going to publish Emwazi's name, officials asked him to hold off for twenty-four hours.
Although they didn't explain the reason, in this case it turned out to be valid. "I didn't know that at the time, but they needed to get his family out of England [to Kuwait] so they wouldn't be lynched," Goldman recalled. "We always take the government's case seriously. Sometimes they make legitimate cases and we listen. There's this idea we always poke them in the eye, but we have relationships. Sometimes you don't know everything; you have only a sliver of it. You've gotten a piece of it but don't know the whole story."
This is a favorite tactic of the CIA when trying to kill a story it doesn't want published: to claim that the story will endanger the lives of its employees or others. As with the Jihadi John case involving British intelligence, sometimes these CIA requests to hold off on a story are clearly legitimate, but often they are much murkier. In 2012, for example, two CIA employees driving in a car with diplomatic plates were ambushed on a road just outside Mexico City by out-of-uniform Mexican federal police who were likely working with a drug cartel. The officers only escaped alive because of very skilled defensive driving by one of them. When the story broke, it was revealed that US officials were attacked, but their agency was not identified. British journalist Ioan Grillo, who was working for a major wire service at the time (which he prefers not to name), said he called the head of the DEA in Mexico, who told him that the Americans weren't his people.
"The fact that the US embassy was not identifying them made it smell fishy right away," Grillo said. "I called a former head of international operations for the DEA and he revealed the truth, that they were CIA." When Grillo told his editors, they had their CIA reporter contact Langley. The CIA replied with an aggressive email, in which it tacitly admitted they were agency employees but urged the wire service not to publish that information because, as the attack demonstrated, lives were in danger. "Senior editors at the news agency were cowed right away, and actually asked [me] if their agency affiliation was important," Grillo recalled. "We ended up sitting on the story. Within a day, a Mexican newspaper revealed they were CIA, likely from a leak in the Mexican government. I was frustrated at losing the scoop, and how the news agency had been cowed so easily. In a story like this, the CIA was never going to be able to keep it under wraps."
Indeed, given the highly competitive reporting climate when it comes to covering the CIA, there are perils to holding off on a story for too long, something that Newsweek's Jeff Stein learned when he discovered who really assassinated Imad Mugniyah, the Hezbollah terrorist "mastermind" who died in a mysterious February 2008 car bombing in Damascus, Syria. Few Americans had even heard of Osama bin Laden when Mugniyah began sowing terrorism in Lebanon and elsewhere. He was thought to be responsible for the 1983 bombing of the US embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, as well as the kidnapping and murder of CIA near east director Robert Ames. Mugniyah was also suspected of orchestrating the 1982 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, as well as a Jewish community center a few years later.
Although his 2008 demise — the result of a textbook-perfect, targeted assassination that killed only Mugniyah — had long been reported as the work of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, Stein discovered that it was, in fact, a CIA hit personally approved by President George W. Bush. After he pulled together the final details of the operation in fall 2013, Stein wanted more than a routine "no comment" from the CIA, he wanted its cooperation. And the veteran national security reporter thought he would get it, because his scoop seemed to show the agency at its best — taking out a dangerous terrorist with a long rap sheet of murder and mayhem to his name. "If ever you could justify a retaliatory kill, this was it," Stein recalled telling agency officials. "And this bomb was shaped in a way that there could be no collateral damage, no other civilians, no family, nobody else would be killed. I knew that the techies were sent back again and again to develop a shaped charge that would only get Mugniyah. That was my pitch: it was a clean, justifiable kill."
But to Stein's surprise, the CIA responded by insisting that publishing the piece would place overseas agents at risk of execution by Hezbollah, the Islamist militant group based in Lebanon. Newsweek's editor in chief, Jim Impoco, agreed to hold the story at Langley's request, and then sat on it. Months passed, then a year. "Sometimes you withhold a story because it doesn't serve any purpose to publish it and you could get somebody killed," Stein acknowledged. "But they always say that you're going to get people killed." In a November 2013 meeting at CIA headquarters, top agency officials made a "forceful case" for spiking the story altogether. "In the geopolitical context at that moment, the CIA made a very persuasive case," Impoco said.
Finally, on the evening of Friday, Jan. 30, 2015 — more than a year after Stein turned in his article about Mugniyah's assassination — he got a call from an agitated agency official tipping him off that the Washington Post had the story and was going with it, despite CIA pleas not to publish. Stein replied that Newsweek would certainly publish too. The official then went back to the Post and informed its reporters that he'd told Newsweek about its plans. The Post decided to rush the story, which had been scheduled for the Sunday paper, onto its web page. Around 10:00 p.m. that Friday, the story, cowritten by Adam Goldman and Ellen Nakashima, exploded online. Stein had been scooped.
There were significant differences in their stories: the Post's story reported Israelis had coordinated and carried out the hit for the CIA from a control room in Tel Aviv. Both Goldman and Stein stand by their versions. "I had three impeccable sources that the Israelis pulled the trigger," says Goldman.
"Tel Aviv was too distant for an operation that required split-second timing," Stein countered. "The whole point was that the Israelis had presented the CIA with Mugniyah's location in Damascus so that the agency could personally retaliate against him for the murder of so many Americans. It was like a friendly deal between mobsters — something right out of The Sopranos." But in any case, it was no longer Stein's exclusive story.
Does he regret that his editors sat on the story at Langley's request? "Yes and no," Stein said. "I did agree that the CIA had a strong case for not publishing when we first went to them in October 2013. Hezbollah had militant factions that would see the CIA as bragging and agitate for a response. A year later, however, with Hezbollah firmly part of Lebanon's government, and with the rise of ISIS resulting in a de facto alliance between [Hezbollah] and the CIA in Syria, I thought the situation had changed and we could publish. But it wasn't my call."
* * *
Adam Goldman of the Post has a history of breaking news much more quickly than not only his rival reporters but also the CIA itself might prefer. Most recently, in January 2016, Goldman and fellow Post reporter Greg Miller broke a story about an internal CIA practice known as an "eyewash," by which the agency circulates two separate and contradictory memorandums regarding sensitive operations, with the accurate memo being kept in a much tighter circle, thus effectively deceiving the agency's own employees — and demonstrating the lengths to which the CIA will go with its disinformation campaigns. Senate investigators looking into the agency's torture of detainees had uncovered the practice, finding numerous examples where the CIA internally falsified reports about drone strikes and other operations around the world.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Spooked"
Copyright © 2016 Nicholas Schou.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 "I Eat Pretty Much Anything" 7
Chapter 2 For God and Country 19
Chapter 3 Killing the Messenger 43
Chapter 4 Embedded 57
Chapter 5 Cover-Up at Camp America 77
Chapter 6 Operation Tinseltown 87
Chapter 7 A Wilderness of Mirrors 113
Conclusion: The Wolf 123
Author's Acknowledgments 137