David Wise–the prize-winning journalist and author who in 1964 co-wrote one of the first best-selling history books critical of the CIA–passed away on October 8th, 2018, in Washington, DC. He was 88.
Co-written with fellow journalist Thomas B. Ross, The Invisible Government became a best-seller with its revelations of — until then — secret CIA operations in Iran, Guatemala, and other countries.
Wise’s interest in journalism dated back to the age of ten, when he started clipping articles about World War II. He would soon become a campus stringer with The New York Herald Tribune. Years later, after The Invisible Government, he also authored ten other nonfiction books about the intelligence apparatus, plus three espionage novels. Wise’s wife Joan said he “checked, double-checked, and triple-checked” his writing.
The Invisible Government upset the intelligence community that up to then had remained away from the spotlight of mainstream books and news. The CIA made attempts to intimidate the authors and then to prevent the book’s publication and distribution. When these methods failed, CIA finally resorted to spreading the idea that Wise and Ross were actually Soviet agents.
The CIA’s then general counsel Lawrence Houston once called the book “uncannily accurate.” As Wise later revealed, this was attributed to the fact that one of his key sources was Allen W. Dulles, the CIA’s founder and first director.
To intimidate the authors, the Agency secretly acquired copies of their unpublished manuscript galleys and called Wise and Ross into a meeting with John A. McCone, then the director of CIA. The authors were warned that for reasons of “national security” their book could not be published and they were handed a list of supposedly “Top Secret” items in their book. Wise and Ross did not bend and told the CIA they would publish their book anyway as all of their information came from public sources.
Next, high CIA officials attempted to intervene directly with Random House, the publisher of the book. They attempted to get the publishers to stand down by stating their objections with the book. And when that failed, they then even offered to purchase the entire printing of the book — in essence, to bribe the publisher. According to John Marks’ and Victor Marchetti’s The Cult of Intelligence: “Random House president, Bennett Cerf, agreed to sell the agency as many books as it wanted, but stated that additional printings would be made for the public.”
The Agency also went to the popular American magazine ‘LOOK’ which was planning to run parts of The Invisible Government. The CIA requested that “changes be made” of selected items it claimed were “inaccurate”. The magazine did in fact make these changes prior to publication.
Unable to prevent the book’s publication, CIA turned to the darker tactic of discrediting Wise and Ross. An anonymous document began working its way among important figures in the U.S. Congress and mainstream media. Dated September 1, 1965 and entitled “The Soviet and Communist Bloc Defamation Campaign”, the paper suggested that the KGB had developed “prominent” American journalists and used as their only example of KGB disinformation the fact that The Invisible Government had been quoted on Soviet radio. The message of the “anonymous” paper was clear.
The book quickly became a best-seller in any case, was eventually published in eight foreign languages, and Wise went on to have a long career as a journalist and author about American espionage.
Ironically, the CIA’s efforts to destroy The Invisible Government and to intervene with the U.S. media only proved the book’s major thesis: that there was a group of large and largely unaccountable agencies at the core of the U.S. government which were engaged in questionable actions and which faced little oversight from any elected officials. “[W]e were troubled about a system based on the consent of the governed when the governed didn’t know to what they have consented”, he told the New York Times in 1988.
Wise and Ross even pointed to the difficulties Presidents had in commanding such agencies: “even when a clear policy has been established a President may find it difficult to enforce. Presidential power, despite the popular conception of it, is diffuse and limited. The various departments and agencies under his authority have entrenched sources of strength. They cannot always be molded to his will.”
Wise and Ross’s main proposal in 1964 was that a new congressional committee be established, one strictly devoted to the oversight of intelligence matters. Their call was ignored for the next decade during which the U.S. intelligence community proceeded apace with little oversight — spanning the atrocities of the Phoenix program in Viet Nam, the infamous injustices of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a glut of global assassinations, domestic riots, and shootings, all culminating in the tragic-comedy of Watergate.
Had members of the U.S. government chosen to listen to these types of criticisms, instead of attempting to censor and smear them, such events in the CIA’s dark history perhaps might have been stopped, slowed, and/or exposed much earlier.
“You see, somebody at the agency,” Mr. Wise allowed, “decided that if you wired up a cat with a transmitter, he’d be the perfect eavesdropper. Maybe sitting right on the suspect’s lap. Who’d suspect a cat? Well, as a matter of fact I would. I have two cats, and I’m extremely suspicious,” Wise said smiling.