Rees, Reagan, and the Digest Smear: The Spy Who Came Down on the Freeze
August 16, 1983
“Certainly, while he was campaigning, and in the years before he was president, he had my material, and he made use of my material in his radio programs. And that goes back years. That goes back to the time he was governor of California.”
The man describing his intelligence gathering for the president is John Herbert Rees, right-hand man to John Birch Society chairman and Georgia congressman Larry McDonald. Rees has been dogged for years by charges that he is a con man, police informant, and agent provocateur.
Rees may be boasting a bit. But observers on both the left and the right have credited his articles as the primary source for the Reader’s Digest piece Reagan cited last fall as gospel “evidence” that the Soviets had “inspired” and were “manipulating” the U.S. nuclear freeze movement. Digest author and senior editor John Barron assured reporters that the president “made very extensive inquiries, before he spoke, on the facts in that article.” FBI assistant, director Roger S. Young told The New York Times the same day that Reagan’s comments were “persistently consistent with what we have learned.” And in an Oval Office press conference, Reagan himself claimed he had verified the Digest piece.
Since then, FBI director William Webster has retreated from the allegations. But as surely as The White House stands by its charges, with the freeze resolutions now coming before the Senate, John Rees denies he was ever more or less than a journalist. However, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, and recently produced in a National Lawyers Guild lawsuit charging unconstitutional government surveillance, prove that Rees made informing on political groups “a profession”; moreover, a 1968 FBI memo concludes, “Rees is an unscrupulous, unethical individual… Information from him cannot be considered reliable.”
Given current political realities, it’s no great surprise that the president echoed charges which first appeared in print under Rees’s byline. Rees, 57, plays a central if largely unseen role among the coterie of ultraconservative commentators and courtiers influential with Reagan, a group whose legitimacy Reagan’s presidency has boosted enormously. Reagan, after all, chaired the unsuccessful senatorial campaign of arch-conservative Birch supporter Loyd Wright in the 1962 California GOP primary. Such are the connections that lie at the heart of the smears against the U.S. freeze movement.
It is Rees’s job, within this clique, to “document” the charges of “subversion” often used in right-wing attacks on the left. Besides covering Washington for various Birch periodicals, Rees publishes the closely circulated Information Digest (subscription price: $500 a year), which purports to focus on “the background … operations and real capabilities of social movements and political groups.” ID reports have been distributed mostly among intelligence units and conservative politicians such as former governor Meldrim Thomson of New Hampshire and Reagan.
Rees is also listed as editor at the curious Western Goals Foundation, founded in 1979 by Larry McDonald in Alexandria, Virginia, to “rebuild and strengthen the political, economic and social structure of the U.S. and Western Civilization so as to make any merger with totalitarians impossible.” To this end, Rees produces foundation tracts such as “The War Called Peace — The Soviet Peace Offensive,” and oversees the computerization of what McDonald claims are 100 file cabinets of data on “terrorism and subversion.” (In an outgrowth of an ACLU lawsuit charging Los Angeles police with improper intelligence activity, the department recently investigated whether one of its detectives improperly supplied confidential police files to Western Goals. According to Stern magazine, staff members of the German-based Western Goals Europe have been linked to the CIA and its German equivalent, the BND.)
The New Right’s leading lights have shined warmly on Rees. Robert Moss, coauthor of The Spike, who in the summer of 1981 testified as an “expert on terrorism” at Senator Jeremiah Denton’s hearings on “Terrorism: The Role of Moscow and Its Subcontractors,” says Information Digest is “the most important public source available in this country on the activities of the radical left … ” Allan Ryskind, an editor at Human Events, which Reagan has called “must reading,” says he has reprinted articles from Information Digest “directly,” and lauds “Rees’s enterprising journalism and credibility.” Heritage Foundation pundit Sam Francis cites Rees as “authoritative.” Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media confidently quotes “John Reese (sic) … a well-known investigative journalist.”
Such endorsements may help explain the striking similarities between Rees’s Birch and Western Goals screeds and the Reader’s Digest piece Reagan cited last October. In the February 1982 issue of American Opinion, Rees concluded that “the Soviet Union is running the current worldwide disarmament campaign through the KGB and front organizations … ” Eight months later, Barron averred in The Reader’s Digest that the U.S. freeze campaign “has been penetrated, manipulated and distorted to an amazing degree by people who have but one aim — to promote communist tyranny by weakening the U.S.”
In the Atlanta Constitution last November, Ann Woolner and Jerry Nesmith said Barron told them he had seen the Western Goals report, but that it was one of over 200 sources. Woolner and Nesmith listed numerous instances in which Barron cites the same meetings, excerpts the same quotes, and uses paraphrasing similar to Rees’s. For example:
In March, in his Western Goals report, “The Soviet Peace Offensive,” Rees wrote: “Mel King, active with both the World Peace Council and the U.S. Peace Council, gave a militant speech, saying, ‘We’ve been too damn nice … (and) always on the defensive … It’s time we stopped just getting mad and started getting even.’ ”
In October, in Reader’s Digest, Barron wrote: “Mel King, a Massachusetts state legislator active in both the World Peace Council and the U.S. Peace Council, demanded a more militant spirit. ‘We’ve been too damn nice,’ he declared. ‘It’s time we stopped just getting mad and started getting even.’ ”
In March, for Western Goals, Rees wrote: “Rep. Gus Savage (D-Il.) stressed the need to bring black and other minority groups into the disarmament movement.”
In October, in Reader’s Digest, Barron wrote: “Congressman Savage spoke about how to induct blacks and other minorities into the disarmament drive.”
In March, Rees wrote: “… U.S. Peace Council executive director Mike Myerson, who has been a Communist Party U.S.A. functionary since his student days some twenty years ago, emphasized the U.S. Peace Council and World Peace Council’s unique responsibility of merging the fight for Western disarmament with provision of support to … revolutionary groups in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, South Africa and the PLO … ”
In October, Barron wrote: “The executive director of the U.S. Peace Council, Michael Myerson, a longtime communist functionary, asserted that the U.S. Peace Council had a unique responsibility to fuse the cause of disarmament with that of the Palestine Liberation Organization and guerrillas in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile and South Africa.”
“John Rees is simply a good journalist who has done a valuable service in alerting the American people and the American government to the threats against our security from terrorists, subversive, totalitarian and extremist organizations,” said Larry McDonald in the Congressional Record in 1981. “John Rees deserves commendations and accolades from the American people.” Law enforcement agencies, however, have not always agreed with Rees’s boss.
The FBI first took note of Rees in the early 1960s in his native England. He worked in a minor business position for the London Daily Mirror. According to an FBI memo released under the FOIA, Rees misused his personal accounts, and was fired by the Mirror. Agents in the FBI office at the London U.S. Embassy discovered that during 1962 Rees had been “keeping the company” of a bureau stenographer. “Rees’s background and the fact that he was married and had five children were confidentially furnished to this stenographer, who was visibly shaken by this news inasmuch as she had planned to marry Rees,” the memo notes. Humiliated, the secretary resigned from the FBI.
Leaving his family behind, Rees came to America in 1963 to take a reporting job. The job fell through. But when Rees was introduced that fall to Grace Metalious, author of Peyton Place, he presented himself as a writer for a Boston daily, and talked her into letting him do a “profile” on her. Metalious had been ruined by her own success, writes Emily Toth in Inside Peyton Place. She was recently divorced, isolated, and a chronic alcoholic.
The promised profile never appeared. But Rees soon became Metalious’s lover and business manager, and by December had moved into her Gilmanton, New Hampshire, estate. According to Toth’s book, Rees often kept family and friends away from her as Metalious sank deeper into alcoholism. On a rare visit, Metalious’s daughter Marsha found the house strewn with garbage and empty liquor bottles.
During a trip to Boston shortly thereafter, Metalious collapsed, and died on February 25, 1964, of cirrhosis of the liver and massive cerebral hemorrhaging. Her deathbed will left her entire estate to Rees and nothing to her three children. She had known Rees less than six months. After the will was contested on behalf of the children, Rees relinquished his claim for what he called moral reasons. The FBI reached a different conclusion: “Rees subsequently renounced all claim to the estate when it was determined that the liabilities exceeded the assets.”
By 1968 Rees had relocated in riot-stricken Newark where he worked as a research director in a Great Society job-training program until he was forced to resign. Auditors discovered that while collecting his federal pay, Rees was often out of town for his own company, National Goals, Inc., a “non-profit organization specializing in areas of education, training and law enforcement.”
In a plan submitted to the U.S. Justice Department, National Goals proposed the creation of “community peace patrols” to quell “the summer months and threats of violence and disorder.” Rees wanted to use federal funds to equip Anthony Imperiale’s North Ward Citizen’s Committee, a white militant group, and Kamiel Wadud’s United Brothers of Newark, a black militant group, with uniforms, helmets, walkie-talkies, tape-recorders, cameras, patrol cars, four offices, and two warehouses. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and New Jersey governor Richard Hughes denounced it as a vigilante scheme.
Meanwhile, Rees and an investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activites (HUAC) quietly visited the Newark FBI office to cut a deal. “He stated he had information of a racial and criminal nature which he and the investigator from HUAC believed was of an interest to the FBI,” agents observed in a report. “He attempted to sell himself and his services to the FBI.”
But like the Justice Department, the FBI wasn’t buying — at least. not yet. “Rees talked in generalities … and furnished no information of value,” the memo concludes. “The interviewing agents believed his interests were self-serving and that he came to the FBI thinking this would enhance his credentials in contacting other potential clients.”
Rees remained undaunted. In September 1968, according to FBI documents, he was undercover in Chicago, covertly taping lawful political meetings for secret testimony he would later give before HUAC. Again a HUAC investigator offered the FBI the fruits of Rees’s labors. Again agents shied away. “We should not initiate any interview with this unscrupulous, unethical individual concerning his knowledge of the disturbances in Chicago,” wrote an agent, “as to do so would be a waste of time.”
Yet Rees had found his niche. He’d made several cameo appearances before HUAC, peddled his information to various police departments, and by now, according to Rees, Information Digest was finding its way onto the desks of Reagan gubernatorial aides beset by campus protests. Frank Donner charged in The Age of Surveillance that “Rees used a familiar scam: he would hawk information to one department (typically a lurid tale of a violent plot) and in the course of this transaction pick up information that he in turn would peddle to a unit in another city. In the same way, he enlarged his sources for Information Digest.”
He also found a spouse. John Rees and Sheila Louise O’Connor arrived in Washington, D.C., just before the 1971 May Day protests and quickly assimilated themselves into left circles.
Rotund, bearded, and longhaired, Rees was an articulate pamphleteer who often sported an Anglican priest’s collar. Sheila, big-boned and over six feet tall, was a whiz at office work. They came complete with then-rare commodities: an IBM Selectric and Gestetner mimeograph machine.
In July Secret Service agents spotted Rees in a demonstration at the South Vietnamese Embassy. Running a computer check on him, they received several interesting reports. According to a Secret Service memo obtained by the National Lawyers Guild, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department disclosed that it employed Rees as an informant. The Chicago Police Department reported “subject is unreliable and is known to make a profession of providing intelligence to police departments.” The Secret Service memo also stated that the IRS had revealed “subject was a known con man in England.”
The agents also learned that Rees “possibly carries a gun” and used a string of aliases, including John Sealy, S. L. O’Connor, and Jonathan Goldstein. Besides his work as an informant, agents found, he had no known employment.
Yet at about the same time, FBI documents indicate, the FBI designated Rees Potential Security Informant (PSI) No. WF-3796. (Sheila would later become a PSI too.) Like full-fledged informants, PSIs are paid for their information.
Former FBI agents and congressional staff familiar with intelligence matters said the government’s negative evaluations of Rees should have disqualified him from working for the FBI. But they noted that, as with Mel Weinberg in the Abscam case and Gary Thomas Rowe in the Ku Klux Klan, the bureau has used less-than-credible informants in attempting to get convictions or discredit a target. The FBI will use “anybody they can,” explained a former agent. “But I wouldn’t touch Rees with a 10-foot pole … all you’re going to do is get yourself in trouble.”
Rees and O’Connor moved into a left collective at 1616 Longfellow Street, N. W. Friction quickly developed. One day while searching for a packet of checks she believed the Reeses had taken from her, a housemate stumbled upon a bizarre cache in their usually locked room. Pat Richartz, now a West Coast legal assistant, recalled finding “several guns, boxes of bullets,” and “a large black suitcase containing everything to wiretap a house.”
In the midst of Richartz’s discovery, the Reeses returned. According to Richartz’s signed affidavit, Sheila beat her “unmercifully” while John held her two young daughters. Stew Albert, then a D.C. activist and now a California-based writer, saw Richartz shortly after the alleged attack. “She came up to my apartment looking very messed up,” he said. “She said John and Sheila did it to her.” Richartz claims she still takes daily medication for migraine headaches stemming from the assault.
Richartz accused the Reeses of being informants, but no one believed her at the time. She was seen as an outsider; the Reeses were valuable volunteers. Richartz left for California. In researching this article, Sheila Rees could not be reached for comment on the charges.
When in July 1972 the National Lawyer’s Guild opened a Washington chapter and became rapidly involved in representing activists and antiwar groups in Washington, Sheila volunteered to be office manager. Soon she became the office’s key administrator and a member of the Guild’s national executive board; meanwhile, John supplied the FBI a steady stream of internal Guild documents.
During the Guild’s 1973 national convention in Austin, Texas, for example, Rees provided the bureau with “extensive” information, according to FBI memos, noting who spoke, what they said, the names of petition signers, and amounts of chapter contributions to the national office. He also supplied a letter concerning the Guild’s anti-surveillance project.
The Guild’s worst fears were not confirmed until 1975, however, when New York State Assembly staff investigating Information Digest contacted them. The Reeses, now living in Baltimore, soon became central figures in anti-surveillance lawsuits brought by the Guild, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Socialist Workers Party. Shortly thereafter, according to a deposition Rees gave IPS attorneys, he transferred Information Digest‘s materials to McDonald’s office. McDonald brought O’Connor onto his congressional staff, and made Rees editor at Western Goals.
When enough time had passed after the Reader’s Digest article to form a fat political cushion, FBI director Webster told Face the Nation in April that “the overall freeze effort does not seem to us to have been dominated … or successfully manipulated” by the Soviets. Yet those most vocal about alleged dissemblance in the freeze movement were most reticent about government reports on Rees’s shady past.
Reader’s Digest prides itself on its accuracy. It touts Barron, a former naval intelligence officer, as an expert on Soviet spying. But while Digest staff assured me that he’d picked up my messages, Barron returned none of my calls.
Last September, Jeremiah Denton entered some of Rees’s work into the Congressional Record to back up his claim that freeze supporters were commie dupes. Denton’s press aide said he was too busy for an interview during the next two weeks. But questioned briefly on his way to a Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism meeting, Denton said he was unaware that the FBI had evaluated Rees as “unreliable,” or that the IRS had reported he was a “con man.” Asked if he did consider Rees reliable, Denton explained, “I was handed that stuff, that’s it, just to get information into the record on that matter … I didn’t get to see it … ”
McDonald refused requests for an interview. When shown a copy of an FBI memo on Rees outside an elevator, he summoned a nearby officer. “This reporter is bothering me,” he told the cop.
Rees himself, in an abruptly terminated interview, said he was merely a reporter with a unique philosophy. He said he favors stories that focus on “what I like to call the further shores of political thought, which range from Marc Raskin at IPS to Gus Hall of the Communist Party to the people who run Posse Comitatus and the Minutemen and the Klan. And I see no difference between Marc Raskin and the Grand Dragon of the Klan because they’re both fuckheads … who want to control the world. I don’t like that.”
Rees claimed that similarities between his stories and the piece by Barron, whom he has described as a friend, were “coincidence.” He said Reagan had used his information during the 1980 campaign, and that while he was governor “members of his staff were getting Information Digest.”
He challenged charges that he or his wife had ever worked as government informants. “You just have to do one thing,” he said. “Find me proof that we have been paid informants … ”
Faced with such documents, however, Rees refused to comment and halted the interview. He and his assistant left our table at a congressional cafeteria, went directly to McDonald’s office, and slammed the door.
In his suite at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, FBI assistant director Roger Young and two assistants sat at the opposite end of a huge coffee table, on chairs about a foot higher than the long, low couch where I sat alone.
Young said the FBI was familiar with the Barron article, but could recall no White House requests to verify it. He shrugged off questions about Rees. “We cannot be involved in evaluating somebody’s factual situation,” he said. “Our job is not to evaluate one journalist’s statements.”
The agent who escorted me out suggested, “It would probably be better if you went through the White House.”
White House deputy press secretary Lyndon Allin spoke with me several times over the phone, carefully evading my questions.
“When the president said he verified the Reader’s Digest article, did he mean it was examined as to its factual content?”
Allin: “Well, I think the term ‘examined’ is a little harsh …. ”
“Who would have actually checked it?”
“I have no idea … There was no formal investigation — we don’t do that with the free press in this country for crying out loud!”
“Can you tell me who, if not an agency, verified the Digest piece?”
“No. We don’t get into process around here. That isn’t the way you run a government.”
“Was the president aware that one of the main sources for the Digest story was John Herbert Rees, a former police informant whom the FBI once called an ‘unscrupulous, unethical individual’ and an ‘opportunist,’ whom the IRS once described as a ‘con man’?”
“I just told you I wasn’t going to go any further … ”
“Rees claims he sent materials to Mr. Reagan and his staff during the presidential campaign, and that tbe president used them. Is that true?”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
“The FBI seems to contradict the president’s assertion that the KGB is manipulating the U.S. freeze movement. They say they’ve attempted — and failed — to manipulate it.”
“No. I think they say they’ve attempted to control it … But the fact of the matter is that the definition of ‘manipulation’ is, ah, I think, subject to some discussion … Look — I’m not Noah or Daniel or whatever his name was that wrote the dictionary. And I’m not gonna get into that. The president’s word stands. And that’s that.” ■