by Philip Agee
I would like to begin by citing a well-known observation of A. J. Liebling, a U.S. journalist and media critic who was active during the mid-1900s: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," he said.
In a sense, this has always been true. News media in general, except for state-funded organizations, are part of the private sector. I know that, here in Sweden as in Britain, you have state television and state radio. But generally speaking, and certainly in the United States, the press has always been in the private sector.
The Power of the Word
The United States - that is, the political class of the United States - has known about the power of the word for a very, very long time. A personal experience may serve to illustrate how powerful the written word can be.
For legal reasons, I stayed away from the United States for about seventeen years-- from the time I started work on my first book, in the early 1970s, until my autobiography was ready for publication in 1987. The publisher of the latter was very eager for me to return to the States for the promotion of the book, but my lawyers all warned me not to take a chance. They suspected that there could be secret criminal indictment, as there could have been all those years, and argued that the risk was not worth it.
My wife and I decided that we would take that risk. We went back, and they didn't touch me. I did the promotion of the book, and that began ten years of frequent travel to the U.S. for lectures at universities and speeches at political rallies, civic centres, churches, even out in the street. Altogether, and must have spoken at more than 500 events in the United States.
One of my trips, around 1989 or 1990, was to the University of California at Santa Cruz. When the organizers told me that the event was scheduled to take place at a civic centre with room for about 3000 people, my reaction was: "Oh,my god! We are going to look like we're all alone in there. We will never attract more than a couple of hundred people." But they said, "Don't worry. You'll see."
Sure enough, on the night of the meeting the arena was packed. During the discussion period after my talk, which was about the war in Central America still going on at the time, a man stood up way in the back. He was a very large person, with a lot of long hair, a bushy beard, and a plaid lumberjack shirt. He paused for a moment, and then said my name in an enormous, booming voice: "Philip Agee!" He said, "Philip Agee, I want to thank you for saving my life!"
With that, the place became as quiet as you could imagine. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. He went on to tell the story of how he was seriously wounded in Vietnam, and had to spend several years in a veterans' hospital in the United States. While in hospital, he became despondent: He thought there was no hope, and decided to commit suicide. But then someone gave him a copy of my first book.
He said: "When I read that book, it changed my life." He said that he decided then not to end his life, but to spend the rest of it helping Vietnam War veterans who had problems like his own. From that point in the mid-1970s until the time of this meeting some fifteen years later, he had made a career of social work among Vietnam War veterans suffering from mental problems because of the things that they had done and seen in Vietnam.
This is merely one personal story, but it indicates the strength of the written word. Possibly, one life was saved-- possibly.
The CIA, as you probably know, was founded in the years following World War II-- supposedly, to prevent another Pearl Harbor, the Japanese surprise attack which brought the United States into that war. In that sense, the events of September 11th represent a terrible failure on the part of the CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence establishment.
There are at least twelve or thirteen different intelligence agencies in the United States, and they are spending on the order of thirty billion dollars per year-- the CIA being simply the foremost among them. Of course, the CIA was not only established to collect information and to anticipate attacks.
From the beginning of the CIA's existence, it was also used to intervene secretly in the internal affairs of other countries. Virtually no country on earth was exempt.
This secret intervention-- as opposed to the collection of information-- was called covert action, and it was used in a variety of ways to influence the institutions of other countries. Interventions in elections were very frequent. Every CIA station, that is the undercover CIA office inside a U.S. embassy, included agents who were involved in covert action. In addition to intervention to ensure the election of favoured candidates and the defeat of disfavoured candidates, the CIA also infiltrated the institutions of power in countries all over the world. I am sure that Sweden is no exception, and was not an exception during all the years of the Cold War.
There was electoral intervention, propaganda via the media, and also the penetration and manipulation of women's organizations, religious organizations, youth and student organizations, the trade-union movement-- very important-- but also the military and security services and, of course, political parties. All of these institutions were free game for penetration and manipulation by the CIA.
In short, the CIA influenced the civic life of countries all around the world. It did this due to a lack of faith in democracy in other countries.
There was a desire for control. The secret U.S. policy was to not leave things to "chance", that is to the will of the people in whatever country it might be. They had to be tutored, they had to be "guided" in such a way that they would be safe for U.S. control. Control was the key word. None of this was done for altruistic or idealistic reasons.
Three key factors
Where the media are concerned, there are three important factors involved: sources, selection and the slant. With regard to sources, it is my understanding that Swedish news media have very few of their own people working abroad. That means that they are dependent on what they get from other sources, for example the Associated Press, Reuters, BBC or CNN.
Those huge organizations which have people all over the world are, of course, selling their products here.
So you receive those products here, and an editor takes uses them in any way he chooses. What seems to be happening with globalization is that the treatment of news is becoming more and more homogeneous. Sweden, of course, is a unique society with a unique history, culture and language. You would surely have a unique way of viewing and interpreting world events-- a vision of the world that is Swedish, in contrast to that of the U.S., Germany or any other nationality.
But how do you maintain this cultural identity with regard to international news, if the media here are dependent on foreign sources? These sources are, of course, becoming fewer and fewer, as the process of monopolization continues. Consider the mergers that have occurred just during the past ten years or so-- for example, Time merging with Warner, then taking over CNN and now merging with AOL. Or General Electric, another giant corporation, taking control of NBC. This is a process that has been going on for a long time, resulting in fewer and fewer independent sources.
Selection may be the most important factor of the three, because what is most important in the news is what is left out. It is a form of censorship.
There is a lot of news out there; but editors determine what is news and what is not. Whatever is overlooked, not reported, says a lot about the media.
This has been very well illustrated during the past two weeks. I imagine that we have all seen the same reports over and over again, on what happened in New York and Washington, along with the demonization of Osama bin Ladin.
There has been some reporting, but not very much, about the fact that bin Ladin is a product of the United States. He is a creature of the CIA, having gone to work for it in Afghanistan. It was the largest operation ever carried out by the CIA, and its purpose was to bleed the Soviet Union.
Bin Ladin was one of thousands who volunteered to fight with the mujihadin against the Soviets. As I recall, there were seven different groups. All seven were basically fundamentalist Islamic forces, who felt that the Soviet invasion defiled an Islamic country. Bin Ladin was among those who did not stop fighting after the Soviets were expelled. In fact, he started laying plans for the future while the war against the Soviet Union was still going on. He was able to develop a world-wide network which today is operating in sixty countries or more.
Very little of this background on bin Ladin as a creation of the United States has been brought to public attention during the past two weeks. Most of what we have seen and heard is related to the "solution", which is war.
How much have we read or heard about those voices calling for alternative solutions to the problem of international terrorism? How much reporting have we seen on analyses of what has driven these people to such desperation that they carried out those attacks on September 11th?
I have not seen very much of that. This may be due to the fact that I am living in Cuba at present. But I do read the New York Times on the Internet every morning, for example, and have access to quite a lot of other news.
When it comes to alternative solutions to the problem, such as a re-examination of U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I don't think I have seen anything. The only thing we get is Bush saying "this is war, we are at war, this is the first war of the 21st century, this is a question of good versus evil, whoever is not with us is against us", and so on.
That is pretty much the attitude we had in the CIA during the 1950s. When we analysed the operational climate and all the political forces in any given country, we had our friends and we had our enemies. There was no one in between. The friends were centre and right-wing social democrats, conservatives, liberals, in some cases all the way over to neo-fascists.
The enemies were left-wing social democrats, socialists, communists, all the way to those advocating armed struggle.
This is the way we saw the world. It was a strictly dualistic view of the political climate in any given country where we were operating. It was very much like what we are hearing today from Washington.
The Uses of Journalists
The third important factor affecting the news is, of course, the slant or bias. It reflects the moral, social and political values of the person doing the writing, or at least the editor. This is where the CIA played a very fundamental role in years past, and I cannot imagine that it suddenly stopped when the Cold War came to an end.
In fact, like many others, I believe that the Cold War never really ended.
It did so along the east-west axis. But the Cold War always had a north-south dimension-- the war against forces of liberation in Third World countries. That never ended, and it continues today.
I also believe that the CIA's media operations have continued. They involve the recruitment and payment of editors and reporters who take the CIA's material and publish it as if it were their own. Taken all together-- the sources and selection of material, and the point of view or slant-- the result is essentially what is known as propaganda, but which passes for "unbiased news".
Journalists are also very important to the CIA for non-journalistic activities. They serve as very convenient agents of access for the Agency.
Particularly since they come from a country with a neutral tradition, Swedes in general have always been of great interest to the CIA. This is because they do not carry a lot of political baggage, as do people from most other countries. I am aware of the ongoing debate here concerning just how neutral Sweden has or has not been. But in the rest of the world, the neutrality of Sweden has created a special attraction for U.S. intelligence agencies, because Swedes have readier access to certain target individuals than, say, an American or a German would.
The fact is that journalists are used for non-journalistic purposes-- as collection agents for intelligence, and for making contacts, because a journalist can approach practically anyone and ask for an interview or develop some type of relationship. Of the hundreds of journalists who have come to me over the years, I have no idea how many have been sent by the CIA. I get some idea when I read what they write. But I learned to be cautious, early on.
Education in Injustice
The covert action operations to which I referred earlier were carried out all over the world, and certainly in Latin America where I was posted. I spent three years in Ecuador, then three more in Uruguay. In both cases, my cover was as a political attach?© in the U.S. embassy.
I then returned to Washington, pretty disillusioned with the work. I was a product of the U.S. education system of the 1950s, which provided me with a very good liberal education, but no political education at all. I was simply brought up to believe that whatever the government did was good, and that it was doing these good things in the name of us all.
It was not until I got down to Latin America that I began to get a political education. Whatever my ideas when I went down there, I saw things around me every day that influenced me. I saw the terrible economic and social conditions, and the injustices that could not be ignored.
The two most fundamental, interrelated problems were the grossly unequal distribution of land and the unequal distribution of wealth. In the early years of the Kennedy administration-- I had gone down to Latin American toward the end of the Eisenhower period-- there was much talk about land reform as a way of dealing with those problems.
But with the success of the Cuban revolution, and its success in surviving U.S. attempts at invasion and other hostilities, land reform in the rest of Latin America was put aside. "Stability" was the order of the day. The view in Washington was that, if reform programmes were pushed, it could lead to instability and create openings for liberation forces all over Latin America that were inspired by the Cuban revolution.
So, the aim of our programmes was to support the status quo, to support the oligarchies of Latin America. These are the power structures that date back centuries, based on ownership of the land, of the financial resources, of the export-import system, and excluding the vast majority of the population.
With all of our programmes, we were supporting these traditional power structures. What first caused me to turn against these people were the corruption and the greed that they exhibited in all areas of society. My ideas and attitudes began to change, and eventually I decided to resign from the CIA.
It is widely believed that, once you have joined the CIA, it is likely being in the mafia, that you can never leave. But that is actually not the case.
The CIA does not want people working within the organization who are not happy and do not want to be there. They are security risks, for one thing.
So, people are coming and going all the time in that large organization of some 18,000 employees.
I decided to start a new career in teaching, and enrolled as a Ph.D. student in a programme of Latin American studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In the course of those studies-- of the Spanish Conquest, the colonial period, and all the horrors that have occurred over the centuries in Latin America -- I gradually came to the conclusion that what my CIA colleagues and I had been doing during the 1950s and '60s was nothing more than a continuation of nearly five hundred years of exploitation and political repression.
It was then that an idea entered my mind which had previously been unthinkable -- to write a book that would show how all this works. The research required me to spend a year in Paris, and then another year in London where the British Library's newspaper archive proved to be invaluable. There, I was able to read all the news reports relating to the places that I had worked in Latin America, in many cases dating back to the 19th century.
When the book finally came out-- the title was Inside the Company: CIA Diary-- it was reviewed in the CIA's classified in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence. I managed to get a copy of the review, which speculated that I had kept copies of all the stuff I had worked on while I was in the CIA, because they could not believe that I was able to reconstruct all those thousands and thousands of details from memory. It drove them absolutely crazy. But, in fact, most of the maddening details were gleaned from the newspaper archive of the British Museum.
The book had a tremendous effect on the Agency's effectiveness, its ability to continue its standard operations. The most gratifying result was that many Latin Americans told me how important the book was for defending themselves and their organizations from destruction by the CIA. In the broadest sense, the purpose of the Agency's various activities was to prop up those forces that were considered to be friendly to U.S. interests, while penetrating, dividing, weakening and destroying those forces that were regarded as unfriendly to U.S. interests-- the forces of the political left that I mentioned earlier.
Thus, for Latin American revolutionaries to come to me and say how much they appreciated the book, with all its details on how the CIA works to subvert institutions in other countries, was extremely gratifying.
Since the events of two weeks ago, there has been much comment and speculation about the new era we may now be entering. Looking back, there was a long Cold War that had already begun during World War II. An important turning point occurred in 1950, when it was decided to start an arms race that would serve the dual purpose of forcing the Soviet Union into bankruptcy while stimulating the U.S. economy. Since the Soviet Union was still recovering from the devastation of World War II, it would never be able to catch up; but it would be compelled to make the effort, nevertheless. Meanwhile, military spending in the U.S. would keep going up and up, which in turn would stimulate the U.S. economy through a sort of "military Keynesianism". This continued through the Reagan administration of the 1980s.
But in the decade since the end of the Cold War until September 11th, the U.S. security establishment-- the political class, the CIA, the people who fought the Cold War-- had no real enemy to focus on. True, they had Saddam Hussein for awhile, and they might have had a minor enemy here, another one there. But there was no real world-wide threat similar to that of the Cold War. Well, now it seems that they have one again.
What this means is that the United States is going to be in this for quite some time. I have feeling that it is going to go on for ten or fifteen years, because they are not going to wipe out international terrorism or something like bin Ladin's group overnight. During this period, they are going to be doing the same things they did in the Cold War. We can already here it in such expression as, "Whoever is not with us is against us." They are going to be trying to use every bit of power they have to bring countries in line behind the United States.
It also means important changes within the United States, because the war on terrorism will serve as the justification for restraints on civil liberties.
They are building a huge crisis in the United States. They are building the psychological climate for broad-based acceptance of an ongoing war, for which there will be no quick resolution. There will be no great battles, either.
Little Room for Alternatives
During this period, there will be very little room for alternative views and alternative solutions in U.S. news media. What are the alternatives? Well, one is obviously to address the question of why these people are doing these things: What are the roots of international terrorism? How does U.S. foreign policy create this type of reaction? How does U.S. support of everything that Israel does, including the oppression of the Palestinian people, influence fundamentalist Islamic groups?
In other words, a feasible alternative would be a reconsideration of U.S. foreign policy, to see if it would not be possible to create a more just situation in the Middle East. But the United States is stuck. It is stuck with an authoritarian regime in Egypt, which is one of the really shaky countries at the moment. Algeria has gone through a horrible period, and the fundamentalist movement there has not died away at all. In Pakistan the government could fall; fundamentalists there could take over, and they would then have nuclear weapons in their hands. So, a lot of things can happen in the months and years ahead.
Unfortunately, I suspect that there will be greater self-censorship by U.S. media in order to line up behind the government, however its policy of war may turn out. There is already talk of a personal identification system of some kind for the entire country, together with large-scale surveillance of the population-- especially immigrants, and Muslim immigrants in particular.
There will be some opposition to this; but historically, the courts have usually gone along with the government, even though they are theoretically supposed to be the guarantors of civil liberties. For example, the courts went along with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
So, it will be possible to restrict, and even infringe upon, civil liberties and human rights in the U.S.
It is early days to draw any conclusions about how all this is going to develop, since it is still in the planning stage. But in my opinion, if they carry out this military solution-- with an attack or a series of attacks, or the establishment of military bases in Islamic countries-- they will be doing exactly what bin Ladin wants them to do. It would turn more and more people to fundamentalism and to his organization. They could kill him tomorrow, but the organization that he has established will live on, and it will be nearly impossible to penetrate.
My reading of the situation is that there have been a few defectors from bin Ladin's organization who have provided valuable information. But the U.S. has not been able to have anyone working in these clandestine groups around the world and reporting from the inside. It has had to make do with whatever it can learn from a few defectors. Certainly, the CIA and the other components of the U.S. intelligence apparatus will be using all available technical means to locate and attack these groups, wherever they may be.
They should certainly know where all the training bases are located, since they were established by the CIA, itself. But that will not be nearly enough.