What was Operation Mockingbird?

James Slate
8 min readAug 21, 2018

With regards to Conspiracy Theorists on both sides of the Political Spectrum lies a common conspiracy that the CIA controls the Mainstream Media in the United States. The evidence they cite for this is Operation Mockingbird, an alleged large-scale program of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that began in the early 1950s and attempted to manipulate news media for propaganda purposes. So what was Project Mockingbird? Does this program indicate CIA control of the Press now? Did it then?

What was Project Mockingbird?

A more notorious CIA electronic surveillance operation was Project Mockingbird, which involved tapping the Washington, D.C. telephones of two U.S. newspaper reporters in 1963.The operation was done with the support of the telephone company, and with the apparent knowledge and consent of the Attorney General. The reporters had published extensive news articles that contained highly classified CIA information. The CIA tapped the reporters’ phones to identify the sources of that classified information, in order to prevent such leaks from continuing. The operation culminated in the identification of dozens and dozens of the reporters’ sources, including a White House staffer, an Assistant Attorney General, twenty-one congressional staffers, six Members of Congress, and twelve Senators.

Project Mockingbird-the CIA’s warrantless telephone tap of the phones of U.S. reporters to determine their sources of information does not appear to have been legal in 1973. Though the Agency had Attorney General approval to conduct the taps, the surveillance does not appear to have been done to collect foreign intelligence, but rather to assess the source of leaks, and therefore would not comply with the basic requirements of the foreign intelligence exception. It is possible that the project could have complied with that exception, and been legal, if the CIA originally believed that the leaks were being made by or to agents of a foreign power, or that the reporters were acting as agents of a foreign power. However, there is no indication that the CIA ever held such a belief or acted for such a purpose, and therefore the project would appear to have been illegal.

The Rockefeller Commission agreed, noting that the Agency has authority to conduct investigations of present or former employees, but “has no authority to investigate newsmen simply because they have published leaked classified information.” Thus you can conclude that Project Mockingbird was an illegal program, though not a program which indicated Agency control of the Press.

Does Project Mockingbird Indicate current day CIA Control of the Mainstream Media?

After the Watergate scandal in 1972–1974, Congress became concerned over possible presidential abuse of the CIA. This concern reached its height when reporter Seymour Hersh published an expose of CIA domestic surveillance in 1975.Congress authorized a series of Congressional investigations into Agency activities from 1975 to 1976. A wide range of CIA operations were examined in these investigations, including CIA ties with journalists and numerous private voluntary organizations. None of the resulting reports, however, refer to an Operation Mockingbird.

The most extensive discussion of CIA relations with news media from these investigations is in the Church Committee’s final report, published in April 1976. The report covered CIA ties with both foreign and domestic news media.

For foreign news media, the report concluded that:

The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who provide intelligence for the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda. These individuals provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets

For domestic media, the report states:

Approximately 50 of the [Agency] assets are individual American journalists or employees of U.S. media organizations. Of these, fewer than half are “accredited” by U.S. media organizations … The remaining individuals are non-accredited freelance contributors and media representatives abroad … More than a dozen United States news organizations and commercial publishing houses formerly provided cover for CIA agents abroad. A few of these organizations were unaware that they provided this cover.

The CIA was sensitive to the charge that CIA covert relationships with the American media jeopardize the credibility of the American press and risk the possibility of propagandizing the U.S. public. Former Director William Colby expressed this concern in recent testimony before the House Select Committee on Intelligence:

We have taken particular caution to ensure that our operations are focused abroad and not at the United States in order to influence the opinion of the American people about things from a CIA point of view.

As early as 1967, the CIA, in the wake of the National Student Association disclosure, moved to flatly prohibit the publication of books, magazines, or newspapers in the United States. More recently, George Bush, the new Director, undertook as one of his first actions to recognize the “special status afforded the American media under our Constitution” and therefore pledged that “CIA will not enter into any paid or contractual relationship with any full-time or part-time news correspondent accredited by any ‘United States news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station.”

Prior to the release of the Church report, the CIA had already begun restricting its use of journalists.The first major step to impose restrictions on the use of U.S. journalists was taken by former Director Colby in the fall of 1973. According to Mr. Colby’s letter to the Committee:

CIA will undertake no activity in which there is a risk of influencing domestic public opinion, either directly or indirectly. The Agency will continue its prohibition against placement of material in the American media. In certain instances, usually where the initiative is on the part of the media, CIA will occasionally provide factual non-attributable briefings to various elements of the media, but only in cases where we are sure that the senior editorial staff is aware of the source of the information provided.

As a general policy, the Agency will not make any clandestine use of staff employees of U.S. publications which have a substantial impact or influence on public opinion. This limitation includes cover use and any other activities which might be directed by CIA.

Mr. Colby’s letter specified that operational use of staff-that is, fulltime correspondents and other employees of major U.S. news magazines, newspapers, wire services, or television networks — was to be avoided. Use would be less restricted for “stringers” or occasional correspondents for these news organizations, as well as for correspondents working for smaller, technical, or specialized publications

On February 11, 1976, the CIA announced new guidelines governing its relationship with U.S. media organizations. The public statement that the CIA issued expressed a policy of even greater restraint:

Effective immediately, CIA will not enter into 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.As soon as feasible, the Agency will bring existing relationships with individuals in these groups into conformity with this new policy.

From CIA testimony later that month, the Committee learned that this prohibition extends to non-Americans accredited to U.S. media organizations.

By the time the Church Committee Report was completed, all CIA contacts with accredited journalists had been dropped. According to the CIA, “accredited” applies to individuals who are “formally authorized by contract or issuance of press credentials to represent themselves as correspondents.” Furthermore on December 4, 1981 President Reagan issued Executive Order 12333 which specifically prohibits CIA relationships with the Media:

Limitation on Covert Action. No covert action may be conducted which is intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.

The recently declassified CIA Internal Guidelines also reiterate the same prohibitions here:

E.O. 12333 prohibits CIA from engaging in special activities to influence U.S. political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.

and here:

In accordance with the authorities and responsibilities described in Section 2, the CIA is not authorized to and shall not engage in any intelligence activity, including dissemination of information to the Executive Office of the President, for the purpose of affecting the political process in the United States. Questions
about whether a particular activity falls within this prohibition will be resolved in consultation with the Office of General Counsel (OGC).

The older CIA Attorney General Guidelines also make mention of this policy in greater depth in the section Relations with Journalists and Staff of U.S. News Media Organizations.

No full-time or part-time journalists (including so called stringers) accredited by a U.S. news service, newspaper, periodical, radio, or television network or station will be used for the purpose of conducting any intelligence activities. The term accredited means any full-time or part-time employee of U.S. or foreign nationality who is formally authorized by contract or by the issuance of press credentials to represent himself either in the United States or abroad as a correspondent for a U.S. news media organization (including professional and trade journal publications) or who,is officially recognized by a foreign government to represent a U.S. news media organization.

Nonjournalist staff employees of any U.S. news media will not be used for the purpose of conducting intelligence activities without the approval of senior management of the news organization.

Open relationships with journalists or non journalist staff employees (for example, contracts to perform translating services or to lecture at training courses) will continue to be permitted. Open relationships are characterized by a willingness on both sides to acknowledge the fact and nature of the relationship to senior management officials of the organizations involved.

The name or facilities of any U.S. news media organization shall not be used to provide cover for any Agency employees or activities.

Nothing in this regulation prohibits the Public Affairs Office from maintaining regular liaison with representatives of the news media.

As per the Church Committee's recommendation (page 456), this ban is also now law with 50 U.S. Code § 3093. The National Security Act of 1947 has also been amended (page 111) to include these prohibitions .A finding may not authorize any action intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.These bans are designed to protect the integrity of government and civil rights.


The CIA did have extensive paid and contractual relationships with journalists. But that policy ended 45–48 years ago. And is prohibited by Executive Order as well as National Security Law today. Internal safeguards and the congressional oversight process assure compliance. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), as well as other committees, closely monitor the Agency’s reporting and programs. Thus we can conclude that the CIA doesn’t “control” the Media in the United States. And one can conclude from a Reading of the Final Report from the Church Committee that it never did



James Slate

I Defend America and its Foreign Policy from a Liberal Perspective.