Spy controversies are all but impossible for the press to cover or the public to understand. Multiple levels of deception are frequently impenetrable and, for the uninitiated, inexplicable. Even historians who specialize in the trade are fooled by manufactured evidence, phony cover stories, witnesses with hidden agendas. It is therefore incumbent on anyone who wades into the controversies to be not only skeptical about swirling charges but also modest about conclusions reached.
Ever since I.F. Stone died in 1989, we have seen a parade of decidedly immodest individuals–including, so far, Robert Novak, Ann Coulter, Herbert Romerstein, David Horowitz, Martin Peretz, Ronald Radosh, Paul Berman and Max Holland–who have sought to accuse America’s most prominent independent journalist of being a Soviet intelligence agent, always on the basis of speculation, deliberate misinterpretation or pure invention. The newest episode began when John Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev published an excerpt from their book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America in the May issue of Commentary under the sensational headline I.F. Stone, Soviet Agent–Case Closed. But as detailed examinations of their evidence by D.D. Guttenplan in The Nation, Todd Gitlin in The American Prospect and Myra MacPherson on the Huffington Post have since demonstrated, the case against Stone is not merely not "closed"; it was barely ever opened.
Stone made a great many mistakes during his sixty years in the business, none more serious than his colossal misjudgment of the nature and character of Stalin’s Soviet Union. But as alleged spy files go, this one is thinner than Paris Hilton. In the first place, only one person–a down-on-his-luck former KGB agent eager to sell his note-taking services–can even claim to have seen the documents upon which the charges are based, since they remain locked up in KGB vaults.
Second, even if all of the accusations the authors level at Stone are true, they do not come close to justifying an accusation of espionage. Stone enjoyed no access to the upper echelons of the US government and none whatsoever to classified information. He received no payments from Soviet intelligence for anything. What he did do was meet with Soviet agents working under cover in the 1930s and ’40s and exchange information with them. Yet given the nature of the stories he was covering, it would have been impossible for him not to do so. And the authors never establish that Stone knew he was talking to intelligence agents. By these standards, almost every journalist who reports on foreign affairs and consults with government officials and foreign journalists who may or may not be employed by intelligence services is engaging in espionage.
If Stone was a spy (or "agent," as some of the slightly less careless accusers put it), so am I. In fact, I’m not only a Russian agent but also a Chinese agent, an Israeli agent, a Dutch agent, a French agent, a British agent–even a Tunisian and Jamaican agent. As Klehr admitted to Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent, "There’s no indication with Stone that he’s providing hot information." He also noted, "He’s just another one of the sources they recruited." And don’t forget we are talking about a period of history when liberals and leftists were quite properly in a panic about the West’s refusal to take seriously the threat posed by Hitler, and many in mainstream society looked to the Soviets as a bulwark against fascism–at least until the Nazi-Soviet Pact. (Stone, according to these documents, cut off communications with the Russians after the 1939 treaty.)
What’s really going on here is that enemies of Stone in particular and the left in general are portraying the normal activities of an energetic Popular Front journalist as somehow akin to spying. "Here is this icon of incorruptibility, integrity, independence," Klehr told Bass. Many of the documents that allegedly indict Stone can be used to level almost identical charges against that paragon of the Washington establishment, Walter Lippmann, who according to the Soviets proved a more fruitful source. But, strangely, we don’t see the headline Walter Lippmann, Soviet Agent–Case Closed.
Armed with generous funding from the ultra-right-wing Smith-Richardson Foundation, Haynes and Klehr publicized their ludicrous claims that Stone was a "Soviet spy" who "worked closely with the KGB," at a conference co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and by the Cold War International History Project. Panels at this event included none of Stone’s biographers or any historians on record as unsympathetic to their thesis, despite numerous entreaties to the organizers to fix this imbalance. Panelists leveled wild and unsupportable allegations about Stone, but when Guttenplan, in particular, sought to rise from the audience to dispel some of the distortions he had heard from the panelists, he was summarily cut off by the moderator. (Long after the relevant panel ended, Guttenplan was given a few minutes to state his objections.)
The campaign to smear Stone bears the hallmarks of a foundation-funded campaign of right-wing media manipulation. The pages from Spies about Stone were excerpted in Commentary, a right-wing journal that has specialized in McCarthy-style attacks on honest liberals and leftists for more than thirty years. Within seconds of its posting on the Internet, it was trumpeted by Matt Drudge. Right-wing bloggers picked it up and without examining the evidence or, in many cases, even bothering to read the article, amplified its false conclusions. This is how modern-day McCarthyism works in an era when Matt Drudge is our authority on what constitutes news: an honest man’s reputation is posthumously soiled while the truth is still tying its shoes.