The Washington D.C. bureau of the San Diego Union-Tribune will close in late November with plenty to be proud of, including a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the shenanigans of U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

But the office — known until recently as the Copley News Service — has a dark past.

According to investigative reports, Copley News Service reporters around the world served as handmaidens to the CIA during the Cold War. The story was revealed in 1977 when journalists Joe Trento and Dave Roman wrote a expose — “The Spies Who Came In From the Newsroom” — in Penthouse magazine.

“They certainly did their duty for the government,” said Trento in a phone interview today from his office in Washington D.C. While hundreds of journalists covertly worked with the CIA, no news agency was as intertwined with the spies as Copley News Service, Trento said.

“Copley literally had everybody in the office sending information to the CIA,” said Trento, a book author and president of the Public Education Center, which operates online news services.

Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein described the journalists’ findings in a 1977 Rolling Stone article:

This relationship … is said by CIA officials to have been among the Agency’s most productive in terms of getting “outside” cover for its employees. … The TrentoRoman account, which was financed by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, asserted that at least twentythree Copley News Service employees performed work for the CIA.

“The Agency’s involvement with the Copley organization is so extensive that it’s almost impossible to sort out,” said a CIA official who was asked about the relationship late in 1976. Other Agency officials said then that James S. Copley, the chain’s owner until his death in 1973, personally made most of the cover arrangements with the CIA.

According to Trento and Roman, Copley personally volunteered his news service to thenpresident Eisenhower to act as “the eyes and ears” against “the Communist threat in Latin and Central America” for “our intelligence services.”  James Copley was also the guiding hand behind the InterAmerican Press Association, a CIAfunded organization with heavy membership among rightwing Latin American newspaper editors.

Columnist Seth Hettena had more on the topic in a 2007 column:

CIA operatives were placed on the payroll, the story goes, and the news service exchanged information for scoops. It was all furiously denied by the Copleys, but even the company’s own historian conceded that the news service had a “sad and thoroughly undistinguished” past.

Then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush banned agents from using journalists as cover in the 1970s, but Trento doubts that the practice has stopped. “That’s why reporters don’t have any trust when they’re working in places like the Middle East. That’s one of the reasons they’re targets.”

According to Trento, one part of his 1977 story didn’t get much attention: allegations that local journalists with the San Diego Union and The Tribune (which merged in 1992) gave notes about and photographs of Vietnam anti-war protests to the FBI.

“I thought it was outrageous,” Trento said.


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