Retrobituaries: Frank Wisner, Father of American Covert Operations
When the Central Intelligence Agency was established in 1947, its founding officers had to figure out how to build a global network of spies, run secret missions, overthrow governments, and recruit agents. It’s not like other countries were lining up to teach the United States the finer points of espionage, so those first CIA men had to be really smart or slightly crazy. Frank Wisner, the father of American covert operations, was both.
Wisner was a genteel lawyer from Mississippi who grew bored with office life and joined the Navy. After Pearl Harbor, he found himself in the Office of Strategic Services, where he spied behind enemy lines, eventually becoming head of OSS operations in southeastern Europe. When the war ended, the OSS was shut down and Wisner returned to the soul-draining doldrums of office life.
It wasn’t long before the United States recognized the obvious mistake it had made in shutting down its intelligence capabilities. Worse yet, the few offices still around with any sort of proficiency in covert action were just too accountable. The State Department didn’t want anything to do with these precursors to the CIA, fearing that some blown secret mission might cripple diplomacy. The Defense Department preferred to save its dirty tricks for times of war. The FBI hated them because they didn’t want competition. When Truman signed the CIA into existence, the new agency found a similar reception. Would the National Security Council really want to explain to the press why some official had to be bribed or some foreign election had to be subverted?
Frank Wisner, who was part of the small network of OSS hands eager to get back in the spy game, had a solution to the problem. He wanted to start yet another secret agency—this one accountable to virtually no one.
There’s a general rule in secret operations: If it has a bland name, it’s important. That’s why when you read about something called the Mission Support Activity, your eyes glaze over before you realize that you’re reading about the Joint Special Operations Command’s special mission unit for intelligence commandos. The Defense Mobilization Support Planning Activity? They plan for apocalyptic scenarios and continuity of government. The Combat Applications Group does not write database software for infantry supply clerks; it is better known as Delta Force.
Frank Wisner’s new agency was called the Office of Policy Coordination, which should tell you an awful lot about its business. As Evan Thomas reported in The Very Best Men, the OPC’s charter gave it responsibility for “propaganda, economic warfare; preventative direct action, including sabotage, antisabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the free world.” The U.S. government would “disclaim any responsibility” of the OPC’s missions.
Wisner’s office would be attached to the CIA only on paper, and strictly for funding and quarters. It would nominally report to a senior State Department official. The OPC’s mission was to take on the Soviet Union, and right from the start, the Pentagon—gearing up for World War III—wanted everything from insurgencies in Western Europe to sabotaging the entire Soviet air force, and it wanted them now. The OPC had a staff of 10, so this wasn’t likely to happen.
Wisner focused his efforts on psychological warfare, most notably through Operation Mockingbird, wherein the OPC sought to influence foreign media—and who better to plant propaganda than the press itself? According to Deborah Davis in Katharine the Great, "By the early 1950s, Wisner 'owned' respected members of the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS and other communications vehicles." The program successfully inserted countless pro-American news stories into coverage while suppressing reporting that might be embarrassing to the country. The program lasted through 1971.
(Mockingbird wasn’t the OPC’s only psychological operation, and Wisner’s office had a great sense of humor. As previously described at Mental Floss, one of their more brilliant, but alas, never executed, operations involved airdropping enormous condoms labeled “medium” behind the Iron Curtain, as a way of demonstrating the anatomical superiority of the American fighting man.)
To confront Soviet aggression, Wisner eventually organized a secret army in Europe. Five thousand refugees volunteered to be part of a “post-nuclear guerrilla force,” which was just what it sounds like—Fallout: New Stalingrad. He orchestrated a massive spy ring, many of whose members were tasked with parachuting into Soviet territory and gathering intelligence. For months, waves of airborne spies in mission after mission landed, and each was killed straightaway. “The only thing they’re proving is the law of gravity,” said one CIA officer.
It was an exhausting, stressful, and almost impossible job. To give some idea of how aggressively Wisner worked to build his spy network and subvert the Soviet Union, when the OPC was finally and officially absorbed into the CIA as the Directorate of Plans, it dwarfed the rest of the Agency, and consumed 75 percent of the CIA budget. Wisner was placed in charge of this new branch, and was beginning to find some real successes. On his watch, the CIA overthrew the governments of Iran and Guatemala—the only two such successes in the Agency’s history.
It’s worth noting that Wisner was the Christopher Hitchens of his day—a relentless charmer and bon vivant who threw all the best parties with the most interesting, powerful, and influential guests. This had the effect of keeping the money flowing while allowing Wisner to influence and backchannel policy decisions. Recalled one CIA officer, “I would be at a meeting where it was obvious that the decision had been made the night before at a dinner party.”
Still, the job’s toll on Wisner was becoming apparent. He worked tirelessly during the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 to roll back Soviet expansion, but was largely ignored for fear of triggering a nuclear war. The results were horrifying—2500 Hungarians were killed, 200,000 were forced to flee their country, and tens of thousands were arrested and imprisoned. "All these people are getting killed,” Wisner later said, “and we weren't doing anything, we were ignoring it."
He didn’t take it well. While it’s reductive to say the aftermath drove Wisner mad, it’s fair to say that it didn’t help matters. He eventually had a breakdown, was hospitalized, and received an aggressive course of electroshock therapy. Afterward, he obviously wasn’t equipped to go back to the Directorate of Plans, so he was made the station chief in London. He retired in 1963, and committed suicide with a shotgun in 1965. Desmond FitzGerald, a deputy director of the CIA, remembered him as a “watchmaker in Detroit” on whose shoulders it fell “far more than any other man, to build our defenses from the ground up and with all speed.”