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Operation Mockingbird was allegedly a large-scale program of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that, beginning in the early 1950s, attempted to manipulate news media for propaganda purposes, and funded student and cultural organizations and magazines as front organisations.
According to writer Deborah Davis, Mockingbird recruited leading American journalists into a propaganda network and oversaw the operations of front groups. CIA support of front groups was exposed after a 1967 Ramparts magazine article revealed that the National Student Association received funding from the CIA. Congressional investigations and reports in the 1970s also revealed Agency connections with journalists and civic groups. None of these reports, however, mentions an Operation Mockingbird controlling or supporting these activities.
A Project Mockingbird is mentioned in the CIA Family Jewels report, compiled in the mid-70s. According to the declassified version of the report released in 2007, Project Mockingbird involved wire-tapping of two American journalists for several months in the early 1960s.
The claim that CIA ran an "Operation Mockingbird" first appeared in Katharine the Great, a 1979 biography of Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, written by reporter Deborah Davis. According to Davis, Operation Mockingbird was established by Frank Wisner, director of the Office of Policy Coordination, a covert operations unit created by the U.S. National Security Council. Davis writes that Mockingbird was a response to the creation of a Communist front organization, the International Organization of Journalists, which "received money from Moscow and controlled reporters on every major newspaper in Europe, disseminating stories that promoted the Communist cause."
Wisner recruited Philip Graham from The Washington Post to run the project within the industry. According to Davis, "By the early 1950s, Wisner 'owned' respected members of The New York Times, Newsweek, CBS and other communications vehicles."
After 1953, the media network was overseen by CIA Director Allen Dulles, by which time Operation Mockingbird had major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies. The usual method was placing reports developed from intelligence provided by the CIA to cooperating or unwitting reporters. Those reports would be repeated or cited by the preceding reporters, which in turn would then be cited throughout the media wire services. These networks were run by people with well-known liberal but pro-American big business and anti-Soviet views, such as William S. Paley (CBS), Henry Luce (Time and Life Magazine), Arthur Hays Sulzberger (New York Times), Alfred Friendly (managing editor of the Washington Post), Jerry O'Leary (Washington Star), Hal Hendrix (Miami News), Barry Bingham, Sr. (Louisville Courier-Journal), James Copley (Copley News Services) and Joseph Harrison (Christian Science Monitor).
After the Watergate scandal in 1972-74, the U.S. Congress became concerned over possible presidential abuse of the CIA. This concern reached its height when reporter Seymour Hersh published an expose of CIA domestic surveillance in 1975. Congress authorized a series of Congressional investigations into Agency activities from 1975 to 1976. A wide range of CIA operations were examined in these investigations, including CIA ties with journalists and numerous private voluntary organizations. None of the resulting reports, however, refer to an Operation Mockingbird.
The most extensive discussion of CIA relations with news media from these investigations is in the Church Committee's final report, published in April 1976. The report covered CIA ties with both foreign and domestic news media.
For foreign news media, the report concluded that:
- The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who provide intelligence for the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda. These individuals provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets.
For domestic media, the report states:
- Approximately 50 of the [Agency] assets are individual American journalists or employees of U.S. media organizations. Of these, fewer than half are "accredited" by U.S. media organizations ... The remaining individuals are non-accredited freelance contributors and media representatives abroad ... More than a dozen United States news organizations and commercial publishing houses formerly provided cover for CIA agents abroad. A few of these organizations were unaware that they provided this cover.
Prior to the release of the Church report, the CIA had already begun restricting its use of journalists. According to the report, former CIA director William Colby informed the committee that in 1973 he had issued instructions that "As a general policy, the Agency will not make any clandestine use of staff employees of U.S. publications which have a substantial impact or influence on public opinion."
In February 1976, Director George Bush announced an even more restrictive policy: "effective immediately, CIA will not enter into any paid or contractual relationship with any full-time or part-time news correspondent accredited by any U.S. news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station.
By the time the Church Committee Report was completed, all CIA contacts with accredited journalists had been dropped. The Committee noted, however, that "accredited correspondent” meant the ban was limited to individuals "formally authorized by contract or issuance of press credentials to represent themselves as correspondents" and that non-contract workers who did not receive press credentials, such as stringers or freelancers, were not included.
Journalist Carl Bernstein, writing in an October 1977 article in the magazine Rolling Stone, claims that the Church Committee report "covered up" CIA relations with news media, and names a number of journalists whom he says worked with the CIA. Like the Church Committee report, however, Bernstein does not refer to any Operation Mockingbird.
In 2007 a CIA report was declassified that is titled the Family Jewels. Compiled by the CIA in 1973, it refers to a Project Mockingbird and describes a wiretap of journalists. The report was compiled at the request of then CIA director James Schlesinger, and was not declassified until 2007.
According to the report:
- Project Mockingbird, a telephone intercept activity, was conducted between 12 March 1963 and 15 June 1963, and targeted two Washington based newsmen who, at the time, had been publishing news articles based on, and frequently quoting, classified materials of this Agency and others, including Top Secret and Special Intelligence.
The wiretap was authorized by CIA director John McCone, "in coordination with the Attorney General (Mr. Robert Kennedy), the Secretary of Defense (Mr. Robert McNamara), and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (Gen. Joseph Carroll)." 
An internal CIA biography of McCone by CIA Chief Historian David Robarge, made public under an FOIA request, identified the two reporters as Robert Allen and Paul Scott. Their syndicated column, "The Allen-Scott Report," appeared in as many as three hundred papers at the height of its popularity.
- CIA influence on public opinion
- Congress for Cultural Freedom
- Propaganda in the United States
- Psychological Operations
- Radio Liberty
- White propaganda
Historical studies of the CIA
- Wilford, Hugh (2008). The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02681-0.
- Saunders, Frances Stonor (1999). Who Paid the Piper?: CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London : Granata Books. ISBN 978-1-86207-029-5.
- Thomas, Evan (1995). The very best men, four men dared: the early years of the CIA. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-684-81025-6.
- Ranelagh, John (1987). The agency: the rise and decline of the CIA. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-63994-5.
- Weiner, Tim (2007). Legacy of ashes: the history of the CIA. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-51445-3.
- Davis, Deborah (1979). Katharine The Great: Katharine Graham and The Washington Post. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0151467846.
- Davis 138-140
- Deborah Davis (1979). Katharine the Great. pp. 137–138.
- Deborah Davis (1979). Katharine the Great. p. 226.
- Carl Bernstein (20 October 1977). "CIA and the Media". Rolling Stone Magazine.
- The surveillance, known as Operation CHAOS, was aimed at determining whether American opposition to the Vietnam war was being financed or manipulated by foreign governments. Ranelagh, 571-575.
- Church Committee Final Report, Vol 1: Foreign and Military Intelligence, p. 455
- Church Committee Final Report, Vol 1: Foreign and Military Intelligence, p. 196
- Church Committee Final Report, Vol 1: Foreign and Military Intelligence, p. 454
- The article, The CIA and the Media", is available on Bernstein's website.
- "Family Jewels". FOIA Electronic Reading Room. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 2016-12-14.. A searchable pdf of the report is available at the website of George Washington University's National Security Archive.
- "Family Jewels" Report, p. 22
- Robarge, David (2005). John McCone as Director of Central Intelligence, 1961-1965 (part 2). Center for the Study of Intelligence. pp. 328–329. Retrieved 2016-02-14.
- "Long-ago wiretap inspires a battle with the CIA for more information". Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-12-12.