Charles McCarry RIP: Once a Spy, Then a Novelist, He Wrote About What Happens When Spies Have to Deal With Journalists

A younger Charles McCarry.

Charles McCarry, a CIA spy who went on to write wonderful spy novels, died last week at the age of 88—the Washington Post and New York Times both ran good obits. In the 1980s he was an editor at the National Geographic in Washington and wrote occasionally for the Washingtonian. We admired his novels—many had great Washington scenes. Here are two posts that have McCarry describing what sometimes happens when spies meet journalists.

An Old Spy Sees the News Media in Washington Behaving Much Like the Secret Police

Before Charles McCarry became a novelist, he worked as a newspaper reporter in Ohio and then was recruited into the CIA. He worked under cover, mostly in Geneva and Rome—his cover was writing features for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

After he left the CIA, he was the number-two editor at the National Geographic in Washington and then became a full-time novelist. Norman Mailer said that McCarry and John le Carre “are probably the two best writers of spy novels.”

In McCarry’s 11th novel, Second Sight, an old CIA spy, David Patchen, is walking in DC’s Georgetown when he is accosted by Patrick Graham, described as “a famous television journalist, one of the new breed who were part leading man and part Grand Inquisitor.” Patchen’s reaction to being ambushed by Graham:

In late twentieth-century Washington, David Patchen said blandly to Patrick Graham, a certain politicized segment of the news media exercised many of the functions belonging to the secret police in totalitarian countries. They maintained hidden network of informers, carried out clandestine investigations, conducted interrogations on the basis of accusations made by anonymous witnesses and agent provocateurs, and staged dramatic show trials in which the guilt of the accused was assumed and no effective defense was allowed. They had far greater powers of investigation than the government.

The authority of the state to persecute the individual was defined and limited by the Constitution, whereas the media were restrained by nothing more than the rules of theater. Because their targets were usually thought by the best people to deserve the punishment they might otherwise have eluded, the media had no need to worry about the quality of its evidence; journalists were not concerned with the truth in any case, only with “accuracy.” That consisted of verifying the existence of their sources and confirming that they had actually spoken the words quoted, or something close to those words; nothing beyond that was required.

If one person denounced another, even if anonymously, that was reason enough to publish the charge. There was no requirement to question the evidence or the accuser’s motives, or even to identify the accuser; in fact the accuser usually spoke on the understanding that his anonymity would be preserved under all circumstances. Verdicts of “innocent” based on the rules of evidence were almost unknown. The sentence was degradation, shame, exile, and, usually, a lifetime of impoverishment resulting from the attempt to pay lawyers’ fees incurred in the vain hope of self-defense. Conviction in the media was sometimes followed by conviction in the courts, but the punishment handed down by judges, a prison sentence or fine or condemnation to a stated number of good works among the underclass, was regarded as the lesser penalty.

Hearing these outrageous statements, Patrick Graham stared dumfounded at Patchen—or rather into the pitch darkness through which they were walking. He could not actually see Patchen, only his silhouette and the dull reflection of the neon corona of the city in his eyeglasses. After trying all day to to get Patchen on the telephone, he had accosted him as he and his Doberman began their regular nighttime walk along the  tow path of the C&O Canal. Graham had hoped to conclude their business on the spot in a manner of minutes, but Patchen had plunged off into the shadows.

What If You Journalists Are Just Assets in Someone Else’s Covert Operation?

Charles McCarry was a newspaper reporter in Ohio, a CIA spy in Rome and Geneva, a magazine editor in Washington, and then a novelist. In Second Sight, his eighth novel, he likened Washington journalists to the secret police in totalitarian countries:

They maintained hidden network of informers, carried out clandestine investigations, conducted interrogations on the basis of accusations made by anonymous witnesses and agent provocateurs, and staged dramatic show trials in which the guilt of the accused was assumed and no effective defense was allowed. They had far greater powers of investigation than the government.

McCarry, through the fictional character David Patchen, an old CIA spy, delivered that broadside to Patrick Graham, a star television reporter on a 60 Minutes type show. The novel was published in 1991 so McCarry was writing about the excesses of television journalism. McCarry today likely would be even more critical of digital journalism for communicating with so much heat and so little light.

In yesterday’s post, Patchen walked off into the darkness after the attack on Graham and the excesses of  journalism. Graham then followed Patchen, caught up with him, and their conversation resumed:

“Do you,” Graham asked with a knowing smile, “think that the entire press is involved in this conspiracy?”

“No, I don’t think there’s a conspiracy,” Patchen replied. “It’s worse than that. I think that you and your fellow true believers are in the grip of a collective dementia that makes it impossible for you to perceive reality.”

“I see. But whatever is going on involves every reporters and editor in town.”

“I didn’t say that and what’s more I don’t believe it. Most reporters are perfectly sane and highly competent. If life were baseball, I’d gladly swap every agent the Outfit now has in the field for the editorial staff of the Washington Post and throw in a hundred future draft choices from Yale and Princeton. No, I’m talking about the few ideologues to whom the many owe so much.”

“Including me.”

“Yes, of course. You’re the star. Everybody in town is terrified of you, Patrick.”

They were entirely alone now, strolling farther and farther into the darkness—if they really were alone; Graham could not bring himself to believe that the woods along the canal were not, in fact, full of heavily armed Outfit men, dressed in black and drifting from tree to tree.

“I don’t know whether it’s occurred to you,” Patchen continued cheerfully, “but there’s a paradox in all this.”

“In all what?”

“In the media giving birth to this Cheka.”

“‘Cheka’? Cheka. That’s insulting.”

“Then what is the word? Thought Police? Night Riders?”

“Try ‘defenders of the First Amendment.’”

“Ah,” Patchen said, “that has a ring to it, and English words have been distorted to mean stranger things than that. The point is that even in a democracy like ours, it is the government, not the press, that controls information, for the obvious reason that the government manufactures it. All you people do is call at the back door and cart it away and sell it. And because your information comes from anonymous sources inside the government that you protect with your lives, your fortunes, and your sacred honor, it’s possible that you’re not the swashbucklers you think you are.”

“Swashbucklers? What weird vocabulary you have. Nobody I know in the business thinks that way.”

“Okay, but think about something. What if the government, or certain elements within the government, are using the media as a supernumerary ideological police force? What if you’re just assets in someone else’s covert action operation?”

“‘Assets’? ‘Covert action’?” Graham’s voice broke. Patchen might as well have flung human feces into his face as these hated words described abominable practices. “That’s a lot of Outfit bullshit,” he snapped. “We do what we have to do.”

“Of course, you do. And let me tell you something. Finding somebody who wants to do a thing, and then making it possible for him to do it in what he believes to be his own interest, is the definition of covert action.”

Dark as it was, Graham could see, or feel, that the other man was smiling at his own sarcasm.

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