New York

Spies Among Us

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Friday’s New York Times reports that the opening of Poland’s communist-era government files has uncovered a few inconvenient facts—like evidence that leaders in the Solidarity movement cooperated with the secret police. One of those fingered is “Zbigniew Nakder, a former head of the Polish language service of Radio Free Europe.” In other words, the head of the local arm of the American Cold War propaganda organ might have been working with the bad guys. If true, it’s an interesting twist on a frequent theme in the history of journalism: Reporter as spy.

In the opening pages of his classic “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” James Agee identifies himself as “a spy, traveling as a journalist.” Indeed, reportage and espionage are most compatible pursuits: Much of the information that spies collect is from “open sources” like newspapers, and reporters have superb cover for learning things they aren’t supposed to. In essence, the only difference between spying and reporting is the audience.

During the Cold War, many American journalists apparently worked not only for their readers or viewers, but also for the CIA. According to Carl Bernstein’s classic 1977 story on the links between spooks and newsmen, at least 400 reporters temped for “the company” in the 25 years prior to his writing. A less covert friendship existed between commie-huntin’ FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover and influential columnist Walter Winchell; the FBI has posted records in which “the famous newspaper columnist discussed FBI cases with former Director Hoover and publicized FBI accomplishments.”

(When the U.S. intelligence complex wasn’t employing scribes to spy for it, it was sometimes spying on them. The FBI has files on such literary luminaries as Thomas Mann, John Steinbeck, and Richard Nathaniel Wright.)

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