That was the question a shadowy source of mine in Hong Kong asked out of the blue. It was 1990, and I had been peppering him with questions for months about an unfolding leadership struggle in China, something about which he seemed to have an inside track.
“Langley?” I replied, genuinely confused. “What’s Langley?”
“That’s where the CIA is based, in Langley, in Virginia.”
“Well, no, never heard of Langley,” I honestly responded.
He took a sip of his tea and replied slowly, “Of course, that’s exactly what they would tell you to say.”
In hindsight, had I been a CIA operative posing as a journalist, I am confident my handlers would have told me to seem plausibly literate about the agency — to at least know where it was. Maybe my naive answer satisfied my source; he continued to feed me tidbits about Beijing leaders for years, and he rarely asked again if being a journalist was a cover for my “real” job with the agency.
The story came to mind as I read Steven T. Usdin’s “Bureau of Spies: The Secret Connections Between Espionage and Journalism in Washington.” With his meticulous research and careful reporting, Usdin, who previously wrote a book about members of the Rosenberg spy ring titled “Engineering Communism,” pulls back the curtain on 80 years of propaganda and espionage emanating from the corner of 14th and F streets in Northwest Washington: the National Press Building.
When the building opened in 1927, The Washington Post cheered its completion “as ‘a dream come true’ and ‘a monument to journalism,’ ” Usdin notes. In an editorial, The Post said it was “less a mark of the accomplishments of the members of the press than evidence of the power of the profession they represent.” The building even looked the part: At 14 floors, it exceeded the city’s height limit, which was modified to permit its construction. Its very existence was meant to show that Washington’s press corps had become a formidable force in the city.
Usdin catalogues the uproar over women being hired to operate the elevators (should men take off their hats in the presence of these young women or stare at the ceiling with their caps on?) and how members decided to ban women from the bar so the men could gossip, drink and play cards without feeling inhibited. Women were not admitted as full members of the National Press Club until 1971. (I joined in 1992.)
While the National Press Building’s general history is interesting, that’s not what captures Usdin. Instead, he focuses on what was going on behind the scenes when organizations, governments and shady characters engaged in activities for which journalism was nothing more than a front. Consider the stories the American Liberty League produced. Working from a small office in the building, the news service turned out articles on the perils of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Few had any idea that the operation was backed by titans of industry, the men who ran U.S. Steel, General Motors, and the Chase Manhattan and JP Morgan banks. They hoped the stories that came out of the league would plant the seeds for the New Deal’s demise.
Usdin also introduces readers to Robert S. Allen, Washington bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor. He worked on the 12th floor and has the dubious distinction of being the first known American journalist in the building to work for the Soviets. Allen was a co-author of a scandalous book, “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” which, in 1931, claimed to deliver the juicy gossip newspapers wouldn’t print about Washington. The book was controversial enough that it was written anonymously. When Allen was revealed to be one of the authors, he lost his job. (The sequel to the book, “More Merry-Go-Round,’’ established the format for the daily syndicated column by Jack Anderson.)
Allen wasn’t a communist, Usdin writes. Instead, his motivation to work for the Soviets grew out of his ardent anti-fascism, and that, Usdin suggests, managed to assuage any misgivings he might have had about acting as an agent of a foreign intelligence service. In fact, Allen decided his intelligence work was just an extension of his day job, providing information to Soviet handlers that his readers never saw. In late 1932, the Soviets were particularly focused on the issue of recognition for Russia. Allen told his newspaper readers that in Washington there had been a “steady drift towards Russian recognition,” but to his Soviet handlers he disclosed a bit more, telling them that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, William Borah, had heard that Roosevelt was going to give the Russians what they wanted. “You are going to win out on Russian recognition when Roosevelt takes office,” Borah told Allen he’d heard from a lawmaker close to Roosevelt, adding that the incoming president had said “he was going to act promptly on that as soon as he takes over.”
In reading “Bureau of Spies,” I was frequently reminded of parallels to current events. Allen’s push for “Russian recognition” was reminiscent of Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the presidential transition in 2016, when Flynn was set to become President Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn apparently urged the Russians not to retaliate in response to new Obama administration sanctions, suggesting to Kislyak that the sanctions could be rolled back once Trump took office.
Stories about Soviet operations make good cloak-and-dagger reading, but Usdin’s reporting on the influence operations of the British provide the most surprise. In the spring of 1940, Usdin writes, “British intelligence operatives, including American journalists in the National Press Building, worked to elect candidates who favored U.S. intervention [in the war], defeat those who advocated neutrality, and silence or destroy the reputations of American isolationists they considered a menace to British security.”
To achieve this goal, British intelligence created a front company that produced polls meant to influence public opinion rather than measure it, Usdin writes. British intelligence also spawned and subsidized a news agency that served its interests. “Reporters, including several in the Press Building, infused American newspapers and radio programs with fake news that had been generated in London,” he reports. “The scale and audacity of the British Secret Intelligence Service’s (SIS) activities in the United States in the eighteen months prior to Pearl Harbor were without parallel in the history of relations between allied democracies.”
My one concern as I read “Bureau of Spies” was whether Usdin’s narrative would add fuel to those forces that have tried to paint journalists as purveyors of fake news, writers with agendas or enemies of the people. Usdin is clearly aware of the way journalists have been pilloried and says as much in the book’s introduction. “While the intelligence exploits of some of the journalists who operated in the National Press Building are spectacular, their activities are in no way representative of the profession,” he writes. “The vast majority of the tens of thousands of men and women who worked in or visited the Press Building . . . had no association with spying. Revelations about the connections between a small number of journalists and intelligence agencies have coated all reporters with an undeserved layer of suspicion.”
Suspicion is, of course, what we journalists most abhor given that we must stand for transparency and accuracy. Usdin’s look at the “Bureau of Spies” only underscores the danger for all of us when the press is used or manipulated. And that is whether or not you’re guileless enough to tell a suspicious source you’ve never heard of Langley.
Bureau of Spies
The Secret Connections between Espionage and Journalism in Washington
By Steven T. Usdin
342 pp. $26