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Frank Wisner, Father of American Covert Operations

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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.”

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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