Jess Cook: Just Your Average CIA Mockingbird

Some Mockingbirds, a term for journalists who are used wittingly or unwittingly by CIA, accept money for their services or receive information or even instructions by the Agency. Some, like Hugh Sidey, are willing to abandon the truth in favor of painting a pleasant picture of the Agency and their friends who are or were in it. Others seem motivated by patriotism and journalistic interest, yet seem to wind up being used by the Agency. Jess Cook of Time magazine and the Los Angeles Times is a perfect example of just such a Mockingbird.

Jess Cook came to public attention in connection with the CIA due to his mention in the Cline memo where he was listed as one of the journalists that Clines, as the chief analyst for the Agency, had leaked information to in order “to improve public confidence in [the] Agency.” Cook is mentioned several times in the memo. The first time, Cline met with Cook about a subject which remains entirely redacted to this day. Whatever it was, Cline knew that Cook was writing an article about it and the meeting was specifically to help with that, yet the entire context of the meeting is redacted.

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The FOIA exemption code 25X1 means that it was redacted because it would “reveal the identity of a confidential human source, a human intelligence source, a relationship with an intelligence or security service of a foreign government or international organization, or a non-human intelligence source; or impair the effectiveness of an intelligence method currently in use, available for use, or under development.” This is either:

  1. A lie.
  2. Proof that Ray Cline revealed this classified information to a journalist so that they could publish it, for which Cline was praised.

Cook is mentioned again in the memo when Cline says that the two”had many luncheon conferences.” Eventually these luncheons seem to have been terminated due to the Agency restricting contacts with the press. This restriction apparently didn’t apply to former CIA Directors, as Cook was appearing on Allen Dulles’ call sheet just a few months later. The restriction doesn’t seem to have lasted long within the Agency either, at least not for current CIA Directors. By 1968, Cook was in touch the new CIA Director, Richard Helms. Helms had been promoted to CIA Director shortly after Cook’s contact with Clines ended, and Helms had at least one previous contact with Cook so it’s unknown how long Cook’s relationship with the Agency was terminated. It seems that Cook’s relationship with Helms was ongoing, as he was in contact with his office again just a few months later.

What’s disconcerting so far is not Cook’s behavior in relation to the Agency, but the Agency’s behavior in relation to Cook. Using journalists and leaking classified information to them to manipulate the public and improve the Agency’s image isn’t something that people are willing to accept. What’s disconcerting about Cook’s behavior is that he helped discredit the idea that these relationships exist.

On December 30, 1979 the Los Angeles Times posted Jess Cook’s review of Deborah Davis’ book, Katharine the Great: Katharine Graham And Her Washington Post Empire. The book was famously critical of Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, as well as their relationship with the Agency. It also speculated, long before the revelation that the mysterious figure was apparently Mark Felt, that Richard Ober was the person known as Deep Throat in the story of the Watergate affair and subsequent exposure of the coverup.

The book examined the Washington Post’s relationship with the Agency and how it was used to manipulate political events, being the first publication to refer to the Agency’s use of journalists as Operation Mockingbird. The book was rejected by the mainstream press and was subjected to attempts to censor the book. Jess Cook’s was one such scathing review that ridiculed and discredited the book. Literally the first half of the review focuses on the book’s first sentence, which was:

Katharine Graham came to national prominence during the Watergate scandals, when the Washington Post, which she owns and publishes, ran a daring series of stories on political corruption which ultimately led into the Nixon White House and which caused President Nixon to resign from office.

Cook challenges this sentence for half of his review, focusing on technicalities and subjective distinctions like whether or not there’s a difference between when someone comes to fame and when they come to national prominence. Cook justifies this by stating that it “is worth picking apart at such length because its faults are repeated throughout. Everywhere there is carelessness, hype, internal contradiction, fuzzy speculation and pre-Copernican view of the world, with the Post substituting for earth as the universal fulcrum.” One of these instances was that Davis discussed something that Cook himself had played a part in, what Davis called mediapolitics [sic].

Her notion about mediapolitics is defined so variously and contradictorily, and documented so ineffectively, that it ends by confusing rather than clarifying. We are never quite certain how the intelligence community links that she attributes to many at the Post translated into the journalistic decision they made.

Cook didn’t take the opportunity to inform his readers that he was well aware of this relationship and had played a part in it by receiving classified information in order to persuade the public and make the Agency look good. Nor did he take the time to point out that one of his former bosses, Hugh Sidey, had published information that he knew to be false explicitly in order to make the Agency and former CIA Director Richard Helms look good. As CIA memos show, both Cook and Sidey were used by the Agency for propaganda purposes. Cook’s writing shows that he was one of the media assets that CIA used to discredit the idea that such a relationship existed. While this confirmation is important, it should be no surprise that CIA media assets were used to discredit the idea that such a relationship existed.


You can read a selection of documents (in chronological order) relating to Jess Cook below.


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