Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The CIA’s Masterful Use of Fake News

Posted by M. C. on February 7, 2019

Joel Whitney

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…

Commissions, Omissions

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 mythcontradicted 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…

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 CIAhad him yanked from his post

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…

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. Preuvesbrain 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?”…


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 Timesas a CIA contract agent, making his contribution to Encounter a manner of double-dipping for CIA cash…

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.”…

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 YemenAfghanistanHonduras 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.

Be seeing you





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