On campaign trail, RFK Jr. pushes ‘bonkers’ theory about CIA’s ‘takeover of the American press’

Written by on June 21, 2024

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(WASHINGTON) — Independent presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. has received intense public scrutiny for promoting an array of unconventional theories, from claiming that vaccines are behind an “epidemic” of diseases in America to insisting that the CIA was directly involved in the assassination of his uncle, former President John F. Kennedy.

But one recurring conspiracy theory has garnered relatively little notice: his persistent assertion that major U.S. media outlets are being run by undercover CIA operatives or are controlled in some other way by the CIA, as part of a secret government plot to manipulate Americans’ minds.

“The new head of NPR is a CIA agent,” Kennedy declared at a New York campaign fundraiser in April, drawing gasps from some of his supporters.

He was specifically referring to Katherine Maher, who nearly two months earlier became NPR’s CEO and president after a long career in international development and digital advocacy. At the fundraiser, Kennedy said Maher’s hiring at NPR was just the latest salvo in the CIA’s “systematic takeover of the American press, particularly the liberal media.”

Kennedy continues to amplify such claims at campaign events, in media interviews, and on social media, supporting them with what experts described to ABC News as “half-truths,” “intimations,” misinterpretations of law, and twisted historical anecdotes. He often cites widespread — but utterly unsubstantiated — allegations that a CIA program supposedly called “Operation Mockingbird” secretly recruited journalists decades ago to help brainwash Americans.

“Operation Mockingbird is alive and well today,” Kennedy has said repeatedly in recent months.

Kennedy’s questionable tactics are all “classic techniques of propaganda,” according to Sarah Oates, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in propaganda. And that’s ironic, she said, when Kennedy is employing those techniques to claim that the CIA and its media proxies are the ones propagandizing Americans.

Kennedy has offered varying explanations of the CIA’s supposed goal for the purported media takeover — from allegedly promoting the Democratic Party’s agenda to protecting the “military industrial complex.”

The theory Kennedy promotes is consistent with his long-running criticism of both the CIA, which he says “continues to be involved in the coverup” of his uncle’s murder, and “the mainstream media,” which he claims have “slandered and censored” him over the last decade.

But Oates said the CIA conspiracy theory also creates a “Catch-22 situation,” where the CIA’s secretive nature makes it virtually impossible to disprove what Kennedy is alleging — and media reports questioning it can be spun “as evidence that the conspiracy is true.”

“And that’s the challenge,” Oates said.

In a statement to ABC News, a CIA representative said, “Any notion that CIA is controlling American media is absolutely false. CIA Is an organization focused on providing foreign intelligence information to policymakers and protecting the United States from a range of overseas threats.”

‘Compromised by the CIA’?
According to Kennedy, the CIA infiltration of media is wide and deep: The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and several prominent online news sites, including the Daily Beast, are “under the control of Intelligence Agency operatives,” as he put it in a late April post on X, formerly Twitter.

Penske Media Corporation, which owns Rolling Stone, Billboard, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, is “a kind of front for the CIA,” Kennedy said at the fundraiser in New York.

And “even journals like Smithsonian and National Geographic … appear to be compromised by the CIA,” he said in an interview last year.

To support his claims, Kennedy last month cited writings from former CIA officer Kevin Shipp, a conspiracy theorist who openly supports the QAnon movement and claims “Pearl Harbor was a myth,” as well as author David Talbot, whose 2015 book on the CIA was “animated by conspiracy theories” and “speculations” that “often run far ahead of the evidence,” the San Francisco Chronicle said in its review of the book.

In addition, Kennedy has frequently cited a pair of articles from author Dick Russell.

Though Kennedy hasn’t always mentioned it, those articles were published three years ago by the media arm of his own nonprofit organization, Children’s Health Defense, which promotes vaccine skepticism and often alleges government corruption.

The articles attacked the “mainstream media” and said they “falsely vilify” Kennedy as a “disinformation ‘conspiracy theorist,'” arguing that news outlets could be under “the sway of the intelligence apparatus.”

To try to make that case, the articles offered a rambling dissection of the personal and professional lives of then-Rolling Stone editor Noah Shachtman, former Daily Beast chief John Avlon, and Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the liberal website DailyKos.

Kennedy has claimed the articles exposed their “agency ties,” by reporting that Moulitsas began the process of becoming a CIA officer two decades ago while looking for work, and then chose a different career path. The articles also said that Avlon is “childhood best friends” with a former high-ranking national security official who once worked for an “intelligence agency-linked think tank.” And they said Shachtman, who started covering national security issues long before joining the Daily Beast, was in regular contact with intelligence officials — which is typical of national security reporters.

Moulitsas told ABC News that Russell’s articles are “utter horse crap” and “hilariously wrong.” Avlon, who left the Daily Beast six years ago and is now running for Congress in New York as a Democrat, similarly called the articles “bonkers.”

“I am not, nor have I ever been, a CIA agent or member of the intelligence community,” Avlon said on a podcast last week when asked about Kennedy’s claims, calling the accusations “a sort of cautionary tale about RFK Jr. … because he keeps saying this.”

Shachtman, who stepped down as editor of Rolling Stone earlier this year, did not comment on the record about Kennedy’s claims.

As for Maher and her alleged ongoing work for the CIA, the only alleged sources of such information Kennedy has pointed to are an online column by conservative activist Christopher Rufo and an X post from a writer who claims to be fighting government censorship and “mind control.”

Both suggested that, as the writer’s X post put it, Maher’s resume and CV “scream spy”: She focused on Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies in college, she then worked for the World Bank and a host of democracy-promoting foreign policy organizations, she frequently traveled to Arab countries, and — before joining NPR — she helmed the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that maintains Wikipedia.

“That would be a very normal and a very impressive CV” for someone who works in that foreign-focused sphere, Oates said, saying that Kennedy’s CIA accusations are a “leap that a lot of people wouldn’t make.”

When Kennedy reposted Rufo’s column in late April, he said, “I don’t know if she is actual CIA, or just ideologically aligned.” Then, at the fundraiser just three days later, he was unequivocal: “The new head of NPR is a CIA agent,” he said.

“Geez,” a woman in the crowd could be heard saying.

It’s not the first time Maher has been accused of being a CIA agent: In 2016, when Maher joined the Wikimedia Foundation, a Tunisian blogger whom she had met before — and even visited his home — speculated online that her new job could indicate she’s a spy.

“Seriously?” Maher responded. “I’m not any sort of agent. You can dislike me, but please don’t defame me.”

“Operate on evidence,” she implored him.

An NPR spokesperson declined to comment to ABC News.

‘Makes no sense’
According to experts who spoke with ABC News, Kennedy has misleadingly tried to frame an alleged CIA “takeover of the American press” as not only plausible, but permitted by law.

Kennedy — a lawyer who touts his own legal acumen — claims that for decades, a law known as the Smith-Mundt Act “prohibited the CIA from spying on Americans or propagandizing Americans” — but then those laws were removed, “and now the CIA actually can legally not only spy on us but it can propagandize us,” as he put it at the April fundraiser.

The Smith-Mundt Act, however, had nothing to do with spying and didn’t even mention the CIA, which legal experts say is still restricted from spying on Americans and operating inside the United States.

Instead, the Smith-Mundt Act, enacted in the wake of World War II, allowed the State Department to distribute propaganda overseas.

Then in 2013, with the internet making it hard to wall-off information from abroad, Congress and the Obama administration signed off on updates to the Smith-Mundt Act that allowed Americans to access and review the State Department-produced content sent overseas. The revised law specifically said that none of the resources it provided could “be used to influence public opinion in the United States.”

The revised law also made it clear that it applied “only to the Department of State,” not any “other department or agency of the Federal Government.”

“So there was still a prohibition that prevented messages from targeting or being designed for people inside the United States,” said Mac Thornberry, the former Republican congressman from Texas who led the push to update the Smith-Mundt Act and retired in 2021 after more than 25 years in Congress.

Several years ago, when various social media users began alleging, like Kennedy does, that the Smith-Mundt Act’s changes allowed the U.S. government to propagandize Americans, both the Associated Press and the fact-checking Poynter Institute labeled the claims “false.”

“The simple explanation that the [law was updated] just to reflect the existence of the Internet somehow is not what some people want to hear, so they have to come up with other explanations that get pretty far-fetched,” Thornberry said.

“It makes no sense to me,” he said, especially since “there are a number of [other] laws that limit what the CIA can do.”

In its statement to ABC News, the CIA said, “Federal law prohibits the Agency from engaging in domestic propaganda efforts and CIA takes this very seriously.”

‘Operation Mockingbird’
As Kennedy tells it, the CIA has deliberately used American media before to spread propaganda at home.

“[The CIA] had a program called ‘Operation Mockingbird,’ where they had [many] of the leading journalists in our country, and editors … actually working for the CIA and propagandizing Americans,” Kennedy said in an interview last month.

According to Kennedy, it was all “revealed” in the 1970s by a Senate probe of CIA activities, which helped uncover a cache of secret documents known as the “Family Jewels” — as well as by Pulitzer Prize-winner Carl Bernstein, who in 1977 published a lengthy piece in Rolling Stone titled “The CIA And The Media.”

But an ABC News review of Bernstein’s article, publicly-released portions of the “Family Jewels,” and the Senate’s final report found no information to support Kennedy’s claims that journalists were used to deliberately propagandize Americans or that a propaganda-pushing program called “Operation Mockingbird” even existed.

The Senate report and Bernstein’s article were both clear about one thing: The CIA’s use of media personnel in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s didn’t target Americans; it targeted foreigners, who were largely viewed as fair game then.

The world at that time was gripped by the Cold War, and the U.S. government was scrambling to protect America from the growing threat of communism — so the CIA asked employees of U.S. media organizations to help. Some “provided cover for CIA agents abroad,” while about 50 journalists around the world collected intelligence and would “at times attempt to influence foreign opinion through the use of covert propaganda,” concluded the Senate report, which was released in 1976.

“We have taken particular caution to ensure that our operations are focused abroad and not at the United States,” the report quoted former CIA director William Colby as telling investigators during their probe.

Though the Senate report counted about 50 American journalists as CIA “assets,” Bernstein’s article, published a year later on Oct. 20, 1977, alleged a much broader program, saying that more than 400 American journalists “secretly carried out assignments” for the CIA — and many even got paid.

“The Agency’s use of journalists in undercover operations has been most extensive in Western Europe … Latin America and the Far East,” Bernstein wrote.

“The tasks they performed sometimes consisted of little more than serving as ‘eyes and ears’ for the CIA; reporting on what they had seen or overheard in an Eastern European factory [or] at a diplomatic reception in Bonn,” Bernstein wrote. “On other occasions, their assignments were more complex,” such as “plant[ing] false information with officials of foreign governments.”

But, echoing a concern raised by the Senate report, Bernstein also said that some “fallout” — pieces of propaganda distributed overseas inadvertently making their way to Americans — “is inevitable.” Colby later told lawmakers it happened on “a few minor occasions.”

In his 1977 article, Bernstein named several prominent U.S. media organizations, including ABC News and the New York Times, that he said provided cover to CIA operatives or had employees who personally helped the CIA over the previous two decades.

Many media executives, however, disputed parts of Bernstein’s reporting, both before and after it was published.

The senior vice president of ABC News at the time, William Sheehan, told the New York Times in 1977 that “there was no arrangement by this company to provide cover for the C.I.A,” and that “there was no one on our staff” working for the CIA — though the New York Times quoted an unnamed, former ABC correspondent claiming otherwise.

In December 1977, two months after Bernstein’s article, the New York Times reported that during the Cold War the CIA did use American journalists to gather intelligence. But, said the Times, they were not used “to further its worldwide propaganda campaign.”

“[None] of those interviewed … said that the CIA had ever encouraged them to slant their dispatches to suit its purposes or to compromise themselves journalistically in any other way,” the New York Times reported.

Despite all that, Kennedy continues to claim that American journalists aiding the CIA were intentionally manipulating their fellow Americans: “Their job was to propagandize the American people,” Kennedy said last month on an episode of his own podcast titled “CIA Propagandizing Americans.”

That’s “a completely different thing” than what the CIA actually did, Oates said.

“The CIA has been found to have done shady things, including with journalists,” she said. “But he’s using the missteps and some of the scandals that have happened in America to try to build into a propagandistic conspiracy theory.”

‘Just go’ look
In the late 1970s, after the CIA’s Cold War-era use of journalists was exposed, the CIA announced a series of restrictions, recognizing that “the use of American journalists and media organizations for clandestine operations is a threat to the integrity of the press.”

As for whether any of that was part of an “Operation Mockingbird,” neither Bernstein’s article nor the Senate report makes any mention of such an operation. Neither do other publicly-available congressional reports or declassified CIA documents.

Portions of the “Family Jewels” that the CIA released in 2007 do reference a “Project Mockingbird,” but they repeatedly and explicitly state it was a short-lived leak investigation that secretly tapped the phones of two journalists in Washington, not a decades-long global program that gained willing cooperation from dozens or even hundreds of journalists.

“Project Mockingbird, a telephone intercept activity, was conducted between 12 March 1963 and 15 June 1963, and targeted two Washington-based newsmen who, at the time, had been publishing [classified materials],” a once-secret document from the 1970s said.

Claims of a much broader “Operation Mockingbird” first emerged more than 40 years ago, and now they are being amplified by a significant candidate for the U.S. presidency.

“All of the propaganda that particularly liberals are hearing is all controlled now by the intelligence agencies,” Kennedy told supporters at the fundraiser in April. “I’m going to be called a conspiracy theorist for saying it, but just go [look].”

ABC News repeatedly asked Kennedy’s campaign to point out any references to an “Operation Mockingbird” in congressional proceedings or government documents, and repeatedly asked for more information regarding the theories espoused by the candidate, but several representatives for Kennedy never responded to multiple messages from ABC News.

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