Hugh Sidey: A Journalist is a Spy’s Best Friend (and Teacher)

While it’s known, and will be explored further, that the Central Intelligence Agency has used and continues to use journalists as outlets for information and propaganda, as well as sources of intelligence, a new fact has recently come to light: the Agency has been using journalists to teach its employees about media and government, social and political trends, foreign relations and changing American values. When these journalists are used in this way, it’s in “a non-journalist capacity” – but the journalists who do so tend to enjoy much closer relationships with the Agency and its senior staff. One prime example is Hugh Sidey, formerly of Time magazine.

Sidey is best known for his coverage of American presidents, with seemingly nothing written about his relationship with the Agency and the people who ran it. The LA Times gave a typical summary of his work in Sidey’s obituary:

Sidey traveled with Kennedy to the Berlin Wall and was in Dallas with him when he was assassinated. He traveled with President Johnson — whom he considered the most fascinating person he ever knew — to the Vietnam War front, and was with President Nixon on his trip to China. He was granted an exclusive interview with President Reagan just hours before Reagan’s nationally televised news conference on the Iran-Contra scandal in August 1987.

As a result of major publications being unaware, or silent, about Sidey’s ties to the Agency, they were almost overlooked entirely. He wasn’t named in the Cline memo that spawned this series. Jess Cook (another writer for Time who will be discussed in a later article) was, however, and a search for CIA records mentioning him turned up his appearance at a luncheon that was held for the Agency’s leadership and some of Time‘s senior writers and editors. The luncheon wasn’t unusual and seems to have been, at the time, a semi-regular event hosted at Time’s offices. Compared to many other journalists, even those mentioned in the Cline memo and the luncheon document, Sidey enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Agency. When he uncovered information about the Robert R. Mullen Company and its links to Watergate and the Agency, he notified them before publishing the article. If this was common courtesy, what followed a few months later wasn’t.

An August 1973 memo from the Alfonso Rodriguez, the Director of Training for the Central Intelligence Agency, informed the Agency’s Acting Director that the Senior Seminar Staff wanted to use Hugh Sidey as a speaker at a seminar on “The Media, Government, and CIA.” Sidey was their first choice, and had already been cleared by the Office of Security. The following year, Rodriguez again wanted to bring Sidey in for the April 1974 Senior Seminar and the June 1974 Advanced Intelligence Seminar, on “The Media and the Government.” Background documents show that Sidey had been considered for use “in a non-journalist capacity” to instruct CIA personnel as early as 1971, although he was not the first choice. This earliest known nomination came during the tenure of Sidey’s friend, Richard Helms. These briefings and seminars regularly brought in journalists and scholars, and were a significant part of the Agency’s training program.

The Advanced Intelligence Seminar was designed for experienced middle and senior level staff, with the minimum acceptable “rank” being GS-13 which is roughly equivalent to being a Major in the military. In the form of seminars, these courses focused on “international and domestic developments influencing CIA’s role and future.” These “frank, depth dialogues” were recommended for personnel from every directorate and notifications of the seminars sent to all CIA Training Officers. It is, of course, perfectly natural for the Agency to want to bring in experts from every field. It’s equally natural to be alarmed by the fact the journalists who are brought in to discuss and help shape the Agency’s role in government and public life were also friends with CIA Directors, explicitly providing spin at the expense of accuracy for the Agency also receive unparalleled access to the Agency in response.

Unparalleled access is not an exaggeration, as Sidey helped arrange for Time photograph Stanley Tretick to do a photo-essay on the Agency’s facilities. The photos that were printed are admittedly beautiful (archived here and here), and although the text is unattributed (as was the custom at the time) it was likely written by Sidey. The article, along with the pictures, are overwhelmingly praising of the Agency. There may have been some resistance, however, as the article notes that the “notion that public relations is a legitimate CIA function worries many old timers.” Herbet Hetu, a retired Navy captain who helped arrange the photo-essay, is mentioned in the article as running an 18-member public relations staff for the Agency. However, Sidey’s relationship with the Agency wasn’t purely professional.

Several months after that article was published Richard Helms, Sidey’s friend and former CIA Director, was in some trouble. After lying to/withholding information from Congress (arguably because it was in open session, the information was classified and the Congressman already knew about it) Helms had to make a deal to stay out of jail. Immediately following the article in Time covering this deal was a two page article which CIA attributed to Sidey which was extremely complimentary of Helms, comparing him to the spymaster M in the James Bond novels. This article was neither accurate nor unprompted.

The week before the article was published, Helms and a former Chief of the Soviet-East European Division at CIA made a number of phone calls to former CIA officers about defunct CIA operations in the Soviet field. The Agency became aware of this when a CIA retiree contacted them, informing them that he had also reached out Sidey after the article was published. The retiree had objected to the article and explained to Sidey why and how it was misleading. Sidey responded by telling him “that the whole point was to help CIA and Helms at a time when the Agency was in trouble.”

In the following years, Sidey continued to provide Helms with flattering articles and interviews. The two seem to have remained friends for decades after this. An inventory of Helms’ papers show that they corresponded frequently and Sidey attended Helms’ birthday parties. When Helms died, Sidey wrote to his wife offering condolences.

What’s bothersome in all of this is that neither Sidey’s relationship with the Agency or with Helms was ever disclosed and that it came at the price of accuracy in order to portray the Agency in a better light. Nor has the use of journalists “in a non-journalist capacity” previously been disclosed by the Agency or the publications that the journalists write for. The conflict of interest is clear and undeniable, yet the details have only begun to be explored.


You can read a selection of documents about Hugh Sidey and his relationship with the Agency below, along with a few documents about the involvement of other journalists and academics in the Agency’s training programs. The final two pages are included because they provide the Agency’s description of Senior Intelligence Seminars, although those particular seminars are otherwise unconnected to the material.


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