Commentary’s Trumped-Up Case Against I.F. Stone

Right-wing historians are back again with more claims that the renowned progressive journalist I.F. Stone was a KGB operative. Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev have an article on Commentary‘s website headlined “I.F. Stone, Soviet Agent–Case Closed.” “Until now,” they write, “the evidence was equivocal and subject to different interpretations. No longer.”

So what is this unequivocal, case-closing evidence, subject to only one interpretation? It’s notes from co-author Vassiliev’s notebooks, made when the former KGB agent was allowed to examine Soviet intelligence files in the early 1990s. He says he had to leave the notebooks behind in 1998, and retrieved them in 2002. And now, in 2009, he notices that they contain damning evidence about one of the right’s major villains. OK.

Only, when you lay it out, it’s not all that damning. They’ve got a KGB note from April 1936 giving Stone the code name “Pancake,” describing him as a “lead.” Then there’s another note a month later saying:

Relations with Pancake have entered the channel of normal operational work. He went to Washington on assignment for his newspaper. Connections in the State Dep. and Congress.

The Commentary writers gloss the phrase “channel of normal operational work” as meaning that “Stone had become a fully active agent.” If you enter “normal operational work” into Google with “KGB,” you get two hits, one to the Commentary article and one to Stone’s Wikipedia article quoting Commentary; if you put those key words into Nexis, you get no hits at all. So the implication that this is how the KGB routinely describes its operative work is dubious; on its face, the expression means nothing more than that Stone is being dealt with in the usual way that intelligence agents deal with their contacts. If the KGB officer had gotten any information from Stone more exciting than the fact that he was being sent to Washington, don’t you think he would have mentioned it to Moscow?

The article takes a long digression into the kinds of things that journalists might do for spy agencies–planting false stories, slanting the news, helping to find people who will steal documents and so on–and then says that “Stone assisted Soviet intelligence on a number of such tasks.” But what are the tasks that Vassiliev et al actually have Stone carrying out? Gossiping, basically. Here’s the longest quote from the KGB files that Commentary provides:

Pancake reported that Karl Von Wiegand works in Berlin as a correspondent for the Hearst agency Universal Service. He had been ordered to maintain friendly relations with Hitler, which was supposedly dictated by the fact that the German press was buying the agency’s information. Hearst is in a deal with German industry to supply the latter with a large consignment of copper. Wiegand does not agree with Hearst‘s policy. He turned to Pancake’s boss for advice.

Put aside the fact that in a sensible world, allegations that a major news outlet had been pushing a pro-Hitler editorial line in order to protect its parent company’s economic relationship with Nazi Germany would be bigger news than any alternative journalist’s supposed relationship with the KGB. Is there really anything in that paragraph that seems surprising in the context of a conversation between a reporter and a foreign government source? Should Stone have treated what he had heard about Hearst‘s Nazi sympathies as some kind of state secret? If so, why?

The Commentary piece continues:

Commenting on Stone’s work as a KGB talent spotter and recruiter, the KGB New York station reported, “Pancake established contact with Dodd. We wanted to recruit him [Dodd] and put him to work on the State Dep. line. Pancake should tell Dodd that he has the means to connect him with an anti-Fascist organization in Berlin.”

Note the nefarious interpretation of the relatively innocuous behavior described in the KGB memo: A memo that supposedly shows “Stone’s work as a KGB talent spotter and recruiter” actually says that Stone contacted Dodd, a lefty whose father was the U.S. ambassador to Germany. The rest of the memo is about what the KGB wanted Stone to do; supposing that he did those things because the KGB wanted him to do them is a classic example of assuming what is to be proved.

The last description of Stone’s supposed KGB cooperation contains no quotes, so we have to rely, unwisely enough, on Commentary‘s interpretation of the memos. As the authors put it:

Stone briefly functioned as Dodd’s intermediary with the KGB, providing him with a contact in Berlin when he went to join his father at the embassy. Stone also passed on to the KGB some information Dodd picked up from the American military attaché in Berlin about possible German military moves against the USSR and the name of a suspected pro-Nazi embassy employee.

Again, what did Stone do? He introduced somebody the KGB was interested in to someone in Berlin. That this was done on behalf of the KGB is Commentary‘s undocumented assertion. He also passed on information about a possible German attack on Russia and a supposed Nazi sympathizer; this is supposed to be suspicious behavior, telling someone you heard Hitler was going to attack their country? Journalists do often talk to intelligence sources, and the intelligence sources often glean information from these conversations; you have to show more than that was happening to show that Stone was not acting as a journalist.

The website describes the piece as a “Special Preview”; is there more evidence held back that actually proves the case? Apparently not; the authors write, “There is only one other reference to I.F. Stone’s cooperation with the KGB in the 1930s, a note listing him as one of the New York station’s agents in late 1938…. It is likely that he broke relations with the KGB in late 1939.”

As the piece notes in passing, the word “agent” doesn’t mean a whole lot; there’s another memo from 1945 that lists (by code name) both Stone and the New York Herald-Tribune‘s Walter Lippman as among the KGB’s “agent capabilities.” Lippman, Commentary writes, knew his KGB contact “only as a Soviet journalist with whom he traded insights and information.” The articles says that “Lippmann’s inclusion in the list…makes it impossible to determine the nature of Stone’s relationship to the KGB in 1945”; more accurately, Lippman’s absence from the list would have allowed Commentary to claim that the list proved something that it obviously doesn’t.

Was Stone too sympathetic to the Soviet Union in the 1930s? Stone later came to think so, denouncing the 1939 Hitler/Stalin pact, and more comprehensively denouncing Soviet Communism in the 1950s. Is there any reason to think that his relations with Soviet officials were not those of a friendly journalist toward his sources? Commentary hasn’t given us any.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.