Reprinted from Consortium News
President Reagan meets with publisher Rupert Murdoch, U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Wick, lawyers Roy Cohn and Thomas Bolan in the Oval Office on Jan. 18, 1983.
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In February 1983, global media magnate Rupert Murdoch volunteered to help the Reagan administration's propaganda strategy for deploying U.S. mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe by using his newspapers to exacerbate public fears about the Soviet Union, according to a recently declassified "secret" letter.
Murdoch, then an Australian citizen with major newspaper holdings in Great Britain and some in the United States, had already established close political ties with British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and was developing them with President Ronald Reagan, partly through one of Murdoch's lawyers, the infamous Red-baiter Roy Cohn, who had served as counsel to Sen. Joe McCarthy's investigations in the 1950s.
On Feb. 14, 1983, in a "secret" letter to Reagan's National Security Advisor William P. Clark, USIA Director Wick described a phone call from Murdoch in which they discussed ways to heighten European and American fears about Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range missiles and thus undermine activists pushing for nuclear disarmament. Murdoch said his comments reflected the views of high-ranking British officials with whom Murdoch had talked.
In the letter, Wick told Clark that CIA Director William J. Casey was eager to help Murdoch's efforts by releasing classified satellite photos of the Soviet missiles in eastern Europe but was confronting resistance from the spy agency's professional analysts.
"Rupert Murdoch ... called me on February 9 ," Wick told Clark. "Senior British officials have been telling him of their increasing concern with the rapid progress being made by the unilateralists," a reference to the anti-nuclear activists who were rallying millions of Europeans to the cause of nuclear disarmament.
"According to Murdoch, the majority of the people just do not understand the SS-20 threat. He asked if we could release satellite photographs of Soviet SS-20s to dramatically stem the rising opposition to GLCM [U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles] and Pershing II deployment. He felt that the delineation of the SS-20 threat graphically could be very persuasive. It would give the press -- the friendly press in particular -- an opportunity to counter the growing wave of unilateralism.
"I pointed out to Murdoch that I had seen these photographs and they are not comprehensible to the lay person. Murdoch responded that he would commission credible analysts to be briefed here. They could make the photographs understandable to the average individual with circles, arrows, and other enhancements." The next section of Wick's letter remains classified -- more than three decades later -- on national security grounds.
On the letter's second page, Wick describes his contact with CIA Director Casey regarding Murdoch's phone call to seek the CIA's cooperation in releasing the satellite photographs and making other public relations moves to influence domestic and international public opinion, including "a presidential press conference similar to President Kennedy's during the Cuban missile crisis."
Wick said President Reagan "could present large blow-ups while experts would be on hand to provide explanations in greater detail. Bill Casey agreed to re-check the objections raised by his people when we initially discussed release of the photographs last year. Bill's people still oppose release of the photographs for 'legal and security considerations.' However, Bill said we do not want to be too rigid and protective, given Murdoch's observations and with so much hanging in the balance on the upcoming German elections."
Wick added that he and Casey wanted NSC Advisor Clark to take this "major public diplomacy question" to the Senior Policy Group (SPG) to consider overriding the CIA staff's objections. (Wick's letter was declassified last month by the National Archives in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I filed in 2013.)
In 1983, the escalating tensions with the Soviet Union over the SS-20s and the deployment of U.S. cruise missiles in Europe led to what became known as "the New Cold War," with Reagan rapidly expanding the U.S. military budget and engaging in extreme anti-Soviet rhetoric.
In a March 23, 1983 speech to the nation about the supposed Soviet threat, Reagan did release a few satellite images but they were of facilities in Cuba and Central America, not eastern Europe and the SS-20s. "I wish I could show you more without compromising our most sensitive intelligence sources and methods," Reagan said.
A CIA historical review in 2007 revealed that the Reagan administration in the early 1980s was intentionally raising tensions with the Soviet Union, in part, by mounting provocative military exercises near its borders. In response, Moscow raised its nuclear alert levels fearing a possible U.S. first strike, a hair-trigger risk for an accidental nuclear conflict that was not well understood in Washington at the time.
The CIA study reported: "New information suggests that Moscow ... was reacting to US-led naval and air operations, including psychological warfare missions conducted close to the Soviet Union. These operations employed sophisticated concealment and deception measures to thwart Soviet early warning systems and to offset the Soviets' ability ... to read US naval communications."