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Why the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird is Widely Misunderstood

Alex Constantine - December 4, 2022

By Alex Constantine

In November, Newsweek, one of the most trusted news sources in the land, referred to Operation Mockingbird (CIA influence on the media, and, in many cases, infiltration) as "a supposed Cold War-era CIA program that is frequently referenced by QAnon conspiracy theorists." (Source) Newsweek, of course, and the Washington Post were hubs in the Mockingbird network, so denial and misrepresentation are understandable.

But in the real world of CIA shenanigans ...

Sourcewatch: "Operation Mockingbird was a secret Central Intelligence Agency campaign to influence domestic and foreign media beginning in the 1950s.

"The activities, extent and even the existence of the CIA project remain in dispute: the operation was first called Mockingbird in Deborah Davis' 1979 book, Katharine the Great: Katharine Graham and her Washington Post Empire. But Davis' book, alleging that the media had been recruited (infiltrated) by the CIA for propaganda purposes, was itself controversial and has since been shown to have had a number of erroneous assertions. More evidence of Mockingbird's existence emerged in the 2007 memoir American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond, by convicted Watergate "plumber" E. Howard Hunt and The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America by Hugh Wilford (2008)."


Carl Bernstein wrote about the program at length in Rolling Stone, and he waasn't a QAnon adherent. Neither were the many journalists who have documented the history of the CIA-media relationship.

A misunderstanding about the code name Mockingbird has led some investigative reporters to dispute the operation's existence. An FOIA request is submitted to the CIA for any related records. The Agency responds that it has no files under that code name. The journalist does receive documents on a Project Mockingbird, but that was an unrelated media surveillance op, and had nothing to do with Wurlitzers pumping out military-industrial propaganda. The journalist does his research, he finds that the CIA has, in fact, influenced public opinion via the news media, but where is the nomenclature Operation Mockingbird?

The journalist then brow-beats "conspiracy theorists" for falling into rabbit holes.

RELATED: "Memo Reveals that the CIA's Media Assets were a Secret Even Within the Agency"

The fault lies with the reporter who doesn't do essential homework on the origins of the bird. Officially, there is no  "Operation Mockingbird," for the simple reason that the CIA didn't exist when the it was conceived. Truman signed the Agency into existence in 1947. Allen Dulles, who would be appointed as its director, christened Operation Mockingbird the year before the Agency was born. His ambition to control men's minds was a glint in his eye at the time. Cold war loomed, and he considered propaganda to be a priority. Dulles began lining up publishers, editors and journalists for an undertaking he thought of as mass mind control.

Nearly all of the CIA's mind control files were destroyed in January, 1973 at the direction of DCI Richard Helms, so it's possible that OM documents were among them. (Source: "Joint Hearings Before the Select Committee on Intelligence," August 3, 1977, p. 3.)

By the time the CIA was repurposed from the obsolete postwar OSS, Operation Mockingbird was already well underway. As CIA director, Dulles pressed on with his objective to manipulate the common volk with dodgy news copy and op-ed treatises. It was a Dulles initiative before the CIA took Mockingbird under its wing.

Frank Wisner - and nicotine-stained birds (New Yorker)
Frank Wisner, the notorious Nazi recruiter, was selected to oversee the program. Wisner was recruited by Dean Acheson 1947 for a slot in the State Department's Office of Occupied Territories. Shortly thereafter, the CIA created a the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), the covert operations division of the Agency,  and Wisner was put in charge of the off-the-books media operation. ("Project Mockingbird," the CIA journalist surveillance op, may well have been a sub-program.) So Mockingbird was a going concern by 1950, the year given by SourceWatch, among others, for its inception.
Another common misunderstanding is the assumption that, because the CIA interacts with the media, all news is "fake news." It isn't. The overwhelming majority of journalists are independent of control beyond the editor's desk. The lion's share of all news reports are accurate enough -- with the exception of the ultra-conservative echo chamber. But "fake news" is planted in the public print. Reader's Digest, for instance, was a Mockingbird disinformation outlet for decades, and still prints propaganda. But the magazine wasn't filled cover-to-cover with CIA perception management. One or two articles on Cold War topics were dropped into a mix of compressed books, human interest pieces, recipes, dieting tips, and the usual Digest  mom's-jowls content. In some instances, paid CIA assets wrote the political articles. It's the occasional planted story that warps public opinion. It's not all that heavy-handed, a poison pill not a sledge hammer.

Newsweek was (and is) among the magazines most useful to the Operation. The code name may be unofficial, but infiltration of the media is not hard to prove, and it doesn't take a complicit news weekly to know which way the wind blows.


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