Curtis Ellis: On CNN, Carl Bernstein Forgets He Once Tried to Keep CIA ‘Propaganda’ *Out* of the Newsroom

Carl Bernstein in 2017 (L) and 1977 (R).
Brad Barket/Getty Images for The New Yorker, Richard Drew/AP

President Trump is slamming CNN for being caught in a major lie and refusing to admit its mistake, and Carl Bernstein for “living in the past.”

Bernstein, the investigative journalist of Watergate fame, is at the center of CNN’s (latest) fake news scandal: a “bombshell” story carrying Bernstein’s byline that’s been thoroughly debunked. But “The Most Trusted Name in News” refuses to retract it.

The dud story would be enough of a problem, but the legendary reporter has another problem: Carl Bernstein has forgotten his own past.

The evidence? The company he keeps in the present, specifically his fellow CNN contributor James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence.

Let’s set the way back machine to 1977, in Carl’s past when he wrote the 25,000 word cover story for Rolling Stone magazine, “The CIA and the Media.”

The investigative piece details how the CIA used the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS and other American news organizations during the Cold War to gather intelligence, provide cover for its agents and even shape news reports.

Bernstein’s piece focused mainly on the agency’s foreign intelligence operations, but he raised the specter that the CIA may have colored the news Americans read and watch.

“Many journalists and some CIA officials dispute the agency’s claim that it has been scrupulous in respecting the editorial integrity of American publications and broadcast outlets,” Bernstein noted, adding “CIA-generated black propaganda” could be turning up in American publications.

“The traditional line separating the American press corps and government,” as Bernstein put it, as inviolable as the separation of church and state, had been blurred.

The thrust of Bernstein’s story was clear: Intelligence agencies are expert in disinformation, deception and duplicity. There should be no suspicion they are using their tradecraft to shape American public opinion and public policy.

Bernstein reserved his greatest contempt for publishers and editors who allowed their newspapers and networks “to become handmaidens to the intelligence services.” He didn’t spare his former employer, the Washington Post.

That was then.

Today, the same Carl Bernstein who was concerned about intelligence operatives compromising American journalism has no problem with James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, being paid by CNN to tell the American public what he wants them to think. Bernstein even sits next to Clapper on set while he does it.

James Clapper, you may recall is guilty of perjury, having lied to Congress to cover up the NSA’s mass surveillance of American citizens.

You might expect Carl Bernstein would ask why a self-respecting news organization would have a spook like James Clapper in its newsroom.

But that it seems would be asking too much.

Bernstein denounces President Trump’s decision to revoke John Brennan’s security clearance, but says nothing about a topic he once cared so much about: the very real possibility intelligence agencies could use news organizations to shape American public opinion and policies.

Following reports (like Bernstein’s) in the 70s that the CIA had plants in American newsrooms, then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush announced a new policy: The agency would not have “any paid or contractual relationship with any full‑time or part-time news correspondent accredited by any U.S. news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station.”

This was buttressed by Presidential Executive Order 12,333 Section 2.13 and 50 U.S. Code § 3093 which prohibit U.S. intelligence agencies from undertaking any covert action “which is intended to influence United States political processes public opinion, policies, or media.” [emphasis added]

The executive order and 50 U.S. Code § 3093 define covert action as “an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”

These directives raise troubling questions, none of which have occurred to the new Carl Bernstein:

Was James Comey violating the letter or merely the spirit of the law when, as head of the FBI, he used a cut-out to leak classified material to news organizations for the purpose of spurring the appointment of a special prosecutor? Comey clearly intended to influence the media, public opinion and policies — and he was acting covertly.

And what about reports the FBI leaks story to the media, then uses the resulting stories to obtain warrants to spy on American citizens? Such actions, if true, are clearly meant to influence the media. This is precisely the type of manipulation Bernstein warned about in the 1970s.

When John Brennan appears on TV calling the president treasonous, one could argue this is not a “covert action,” though it’s meant to influence political processes, public opinion, policies and the media.

But when that person calling the president treasonous still has the top-secret security clearance he held as head of the CIA, things become a little more complicated. Ambiguity and uncertainty are landscape features of the secret world and its borderlands with the outside world.

Are John Brennan’s words informed by classified information? Is he acting at the direction of someone on the other side of the veil of secrecy? Has Brennan really left the secret world – can he? Brennan has done nothing to dispel the ambiguity, hinting he knows something he can’t tell us.

It is impossible for us to know the answers with absolute certainty.

The young Carl Bernstein thought he had the answer: a strong border separating the American press corps and government would keep spymasters out of the newsroom.

Today, he’s not even asking the questions.

Curtis Ellis is the founder and chairman emeritus of the American Jobs Alliance, an economic nationalist non-profit. He and his organization were instrumental in building public awareness about the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” that lead to that trade deal’s defeat. He served as senior policy advisor on the Donald J. Trump for President campaign and Presidential Transition Team. You can find his work at


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