What if I told you that the U.S. government had a secret plan to control the media and manipulate public opinion? Sounds like something out of a spy movie, right? Well, it’s not. This is the story of Operation Mockingbird, a conspiracy theory that alleges the CIA had a massive program to use the media to spread its propaganda. From foreign news sources to sympathetic reporters at home, the CIA allegedly used every tool at its disposal to shape the narrative and control the message. And while the existence of Operation Mockingbird has never been officially confirmed, the evidence is compelling. Join us as we dive into this fascinating tale of government secrecy, media manipulation, and the battle for the truth.
In 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act (NSA) that established a Department of Defense. The NSA also created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), intelligence serving as an important means to win the war.
Intelligence gathering is also important during peacetime to help keep track of ongoing dangers. Spying is an ancient art with powerful nations often using illegal means to gain information.
The CIA website spells out its marching orders:
- Collect foreign intelligence
- Produce objective analysis; and
- Conduct covert action, as directed by the president
The agency would not only collect and analyze intelligence. For instance, President Eisenhower authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to secretly support anti-communist efforts worldwide. The CIA ultimately is a spy agency, the sort you might see in spy thrillers.
The CIA is allowed to act covertly, secretly, in other countries including to work with groups that are enemies of the state. An infamous case was the “Bay of Pigs,” where the CIA worked with rebels in a failed attempt to overturn the communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro.
CIA Covert Actions in the U.S.
The CIA was not supposed to act domestically (at home, in the United States). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other government institutions were in place to address domestic crime control and intelligence gathering. The CIA did not always follow this rule.
Over the years, media and governmental investigations have exposed various ways the CIA illegally was involved in domestic affairs. The CIA itself, after CIA veterans were involved in the Watergate break-ins (a dirty trick by the campaign to re-elect President Nixon), compiled a “Family Jewels” report spelling out a range of illegal activities the agency committed.
A request for information provided information about this report, including a reference to something called “Project Mockingbird” that took place from March to June 1963.
(Those interested can find additional information online.)
A mockingbird is a skilled mimic, something that can copy the sounds of others. A classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, declared the innocence of mockingbirds, noting all they did was make beautiful music. Clearly, it is not always a safe thing when someone can repeat what you say.
The CIA did not like the fact that reporters were publishing articles that contained classified information about its activities. The CIA, working with the phone company and knowledge of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, tapped the reporters’ phones.
The taps, which were likely illegal under the law at the time, resulted in a trove of information about the reporters’ sources. The reporters obtained information from multiple members of Congress, staff members of the Vice President’s office, and even an Assistant Attorney General. Such “leaks” continue to this day, providing important information to the public.
This CIA surveillance effort was named “Project Mockingbird,” the agency wanted to be like the mockingbird and be able to repeat what was being said about them.
CIA Use of the Foreign Media
As an intelligence agency, the CIA tracks foreign media and has used it as part of its covert purposes. The media is a very important tool of information. For instance, during the Civil War, reading rebel newspapers was a useful means for the Union to keep track of the Confederacy.
The CIA’s use of the media was addressed in a report by the 1970s Church Committee, during a Senate investigation of various abuses of government intelligence gathering. The final report noted the CIA found foreign media as an important tool:
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 covert propaganda.
The media is often used by governments to promote their point of view, including through unnamed sources in news articles. For instance, police departments can selectively provide information about an ongoing criminal case. This would provide “their” view of the matter.
Foreign Media Good, Domestic Bad
The CIA’s usage of foreign media was neither surprising nor a violation of its overall mission.
Project Mockingbird, however, shows that the CIA also interfered with domestic newsgathering. The Church Report found that the CIA used American reporters as part of their foreign news gathering. Foreign reporting also was “shaded” with CIA involvement.
The CIA, however, assured the committee that they were aware of the “wall” between domestic and foreign intelligence gathering:
If so, they did not completely do so in the past. For instance, a 1967 NYT article reported: “A Student Group Concedes It Took Funds from C.I.A.” Since the 1950s the agency had funded the National Student Association, a confederation of college and university student governments, to promote its point of view and report group activities to the CIA.
The extent the CIA used domestic groups, including reporters and newspapers, however, is unclear.
Operation Mockingbird is an alleged large-scale program that began in the early 1950s involved in the manipulation of news media for propaganda purposes.
Stories would not just provide the “company line” but promote false stories as set forth by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Deborah Davis, the author of an unofficial biography of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, is a primary source of this conspiracy. It promotes the idea that many major news sources were involved, including articles in hundreds of newspapers.
Reporters were bribed and threatened if they did not go along.
Some Reasons For Doubt
Nonetheless, the Church Committee did not find such an extensive usage of domestic news sources. The committee was suspicious of the CIA and government attempts generally to suppress domestic dissent, including during the Civil Rights Era.
If there was clear evidence, would they not say so? The claimed involvement of domestic media also violated CIA official policy (conspiracy theorists would put a big “for what that’s worth” sticker here) and in time became officially against the law.
The truth of the matter is likely that the CIA did to some extent try to influence domestic media, including with the support of certain Cold War journalists.
Specific incidents of domestic propaganda might have occurred with plausible deniability about the details.
Some major conspiracy to control the media is more unlikely. Evidence that backs up Deborah Davis’s broad claims has been hard to come by as noted by The Rising Clamor: The American Press, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Cold War by David P. Hadley.
On the other hand, maybe that is what “they” want us to believe.