'The CIA’s relationship with its front organizations has often been depicted in the imagery of musical recitation or theatrical performance. The Agency has variously been portrayed as playing the keys of a giant organ, pulling the strings of marionettes, or calling the tune of a piper. Whatever the metaphor, the implication is the same: from behind the scenes, the spies exercised complete control over the recipients of their covert largesse. What do we now know about the Mighty Wurlitzer? Modeled on the communist front, and powered by the natural energy of American associationalism, the CIA’s covert network was constructed by a group of elite men whose innate dislike of big government and official secrecy was offset by their hatred of communism and unquestioning belief in the moral righteousness of their own actions. Having failed in one of its original purposes, the mobilization of eastern-bloc émigrés to liberate the “captive nations,” the network was increasingly employed instead to prevent the communization of, first, western Europe, then such regions of the developing world as Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa. As this shift took place, the early influence on front operations of ex-communist ideologues gave way to a liberal, internationalist emphasis on development and modernization, with many of the citizen groups involved also active in social movements and minority struggles on the home front. The CIA, however, was never able to resolve the fundamental contradiction between Cold War anticommunism and domestic reform at the heart of its front program; nor did the groups themselves ever succeed in reconciling their claims to representativeness at home and internationalism abroad with their covert purpose as state-funded weapons of political warfare. Eventually, when the Cold War consensus fragmented along racial, generational, and gender lines in the late 1960s, the difficulties not only of maintaining this unlikely alliance but also of keeping its existence secret became insurmountable, and the Wurlitzer collapsed. Its fate is symbolized most poignantly in the lives of the CIA officers who tried to “play” it: the suicide Wisner, the disillusioned Meyer, and the disgraced Dulles. Only Tom Braden emerged unscathed, and he had gotten out early. The cost of the Wurlitzer to Americans was immense, both literally and figuratively. (One Rusk Committee witness put the total annual expense of “CIA support for private, voluntary organizations,” excluding the proprietary radio stations, at about $15 million.) Quite apart from the personal crises that enveloped many private individuals who had participated in front operations, whether wittingly or unwittingly, when these operations were exposed in 1967 (the example of student leader Eugene Groves springs to mind), there was the miasma of suspicion that attached itself to all U.S. citizens—students, journalists, clergy, and aid workers— who were working abroad for genuine nongovernment organizations or official agencies that had resisted covert penetration, such as the Peace Corps. At home, the revelations of 1967 damaged popular trust in government. Coming as they did several years before Watergate and the other political scandals of the mid-1970s, they constituted the first occasion in the postwar period when Americans learned en masse that they were being systematically deceived by federal officials. The news of covert CIA involvement also sullied the image of that most cherished of American institutions, the citizen association, arguably contributing to the decline of associational activity, which a number of observers have identified as one of the distinguishing features of late twentieth-century American life. Finally, the cult of covert action that gave rise to the MightyWurlitzer in the first place—and the incapacitating, demoralizing bouts of hostile external scrutiny that ensued when operations were exposed—distracted the CIA from its founding mission, the gathering and analysis of intelligence about threats to national security, the prevention of another Peal Harbor. Combined with other factors, such as presidential inattention and intelligence manipulation, this failing has had unfortunate and sometimes tragic consequences, the brunt of which has been born by ordinary Americans.
Was the cost worth it? The United States eventually won the Cold War struggle for hearts and minds, but how much this victory had to do with government-funded psychological warfare measures, as opposed to the spontaneous appeal of consumer capitalism or factors internal to the communist bloc, is very much open to question. The impact of propaganda on target populations is notoriously hard to measure, and in the case of CIA front operations the researcher lacks access even to the results of the public opinion surveys conducted by overt information agencies such as the USIA. The handful of country studies undertaken by scholars to date suggests an uneven impact, with some front organizations enjoying an enthusiastic reception, others meeting with resistance or opportunistic acts of appropriation, and all prone to the vagaries of local conditions over which the CIA had little or no control. That said, one generalization does seem possible: front operations were most effective when they succeeded in attracting the support of national elites who shared a positive vision of American power in the world. Thus, for example, the internationalist, modernizing, social democratic-tinged politics of the Reutherite CIO played far better with overseas labor movements than the hectoring anticommunism and business unionism of the AFL’s Lovestoneite foreign policy apparatus. There is perhaps a lesson to be learned here by those currently concerned about improving the United States’s image abroad. Indeed, a number of the issues raised by the history of the MightyWurlitzer are very much alive today, at a time when the CIA still holds a large stake in areas of American civil society. Take U.S. universities, for example. In 1976, the Church Committee reported that it was “disturbed” by the Agency’s “operational use” of individual academics, which included “providing leads and making introductions for intelligence purposes, collaboration in research and analysis, intelligence collection abroad, and preparation of books and other propaganda materials.” In the years that immediately followed, American academic leaders, most notably the president of Harvard University, Derek Bok, attempted to impose some control over CIA activities on campus, drawing up codes of professional conduct to govern dealings between individual academics and intelligence officers. This campaign had little effect. The Agency refused to abide by the guidelines and continued to employ professors for recruitment, research, and intelligence-gathering purposes, even at Bok’s own university, where in 1986 Professor Nadav Safran, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, was censured for using CIA money to organize an international conference without informing the attendees. If anything, these practices have intensified in recent years, with the “war on terror” recreating the conditions of total mobilization that prevailed in the first years of the ColdWar. A few intractable individuals still speak out, alleging a fundamental conflict between the values of scholarly inquiry and secret intelligence; but the CIA is, according to the Wall Street Journal, “a growing force on campus,” even offering special scholarships to graduate students willing and able to obtain security clearances.
The front group also has in recent years undergone a revival of sorts. Neoconservative intellectuals—the ideological and, in several cases, biological descendants of the New York intellectuals of an earlier generation— have employed tactics and techniques first used on American soil by the Old Left during the 1930s, which were then resurrected by a CIA front, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, during the 1950s. Ventures such as the Project for a New American Century (the invention of William Kristol, son of ACCF officer and neocon intellectual “godfather,” Irving Kristol) prosecute the neoconservatives’ notion of a “global democratic revolution” in the Middle East. There have even been reports linking Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, a hugely popular account of the author’s experience introducing fellow Iranian women to forbidden works of western literature, with the neoconservative project of preparing American opinion for a U.S. invasion of Iran, in a scenario reminiscent of earlier deployments of literary texts in the cultural Cold War. Meanwhile, in an ironic and ghastly symmetry, radical Islamic groups posing as community welfare organizations have used the front tactic in an effort to recruit young British Muslims for further terrorist attacks on western targets. (It is not clear at this stage to what extent this practice has spread to the United States.) Far from dying out after the end of the Cold War, the front group is alive and well, and living in Bradford, England. Should western intelligence services use the tactic themselves in the war on terror? The example of the U.S. front groups created in the early years of the Cold War suggests that such operations do not necessarily entail cynical manipulation and passive obedience. Indeed, the CIA’s state/private network was built to a great extent on shared values and involved a surprising amount of self-assertion on the part of the private citizens who belonged to it. Nevertheless, no matter how much one dwells on the consensual and voluntarist aspects of the relationship, the fact remains that the front tactic was based on secrecy and deception, making it all the more problematic when undertaken in a nation avowedly dedicated to the principles of freedom and openness. “Operations of this nature are not in character for this country,” concluded George Kennan, who had been perhaps the most influential advocate of communist-style propaganda methods at the beginning of the Cold War, in 1985. “I regret today, in light of the experience of the intervening years, that the decision was taken.” CIA front operations in the Cold War blighted individual careers and lives; their eventual exposure stained the reputation of the nation itself. Public diplomacy, the winning of hearts and minds, should be left to overt government agencies and genuine, nongovernment organizations. This is the most valuable lesson to be drawn from the history of the Mighty Wurlitzer.'
+ "The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America" - Hugh Wilford (2008):