Book of Spies

For decades, writer Richard Gib­son de­nied be­ing a CIA agent. Then the agency re­vealed the truth—even though Gib­son is still alive

Newsweek - - Periscope - BY JEF­FER­SON MORLEY @jef­fer­son­mor­ley

in the late 1940s and early 1950s, paris beck­oned African-amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tu­als hop­ing to es­cape the racism and con­form­ity of Amer­i­can life. Chief among them: Richard Wright, the ac­claimed au­thor of Na­tive Son and Black Boy, who ar­rived in 1947. He was soon joined by Ch­ester Himes, an ex-con­vict who mastered hard­boiled de­tec­tive fic­tion; James Bald­win, the pre­co­cious es­say­ist; and Richard Gib­son, an edi­tor at the Agence France-presse.

Th­ese men be­came friends, col­leagues and, soon, bit­ter ri­vals. Their re­la­tion­ship ap­peared to un­ravel over France’s war to keep its colony in Al­ge­ria. Gib­son pres­sured Wright to pub­licly crit­i­cize the French gov­ern­ment, an­ger­ing the ac­claimed au­thor. Wright dra­ma­tized their fall­ing-out in a ro­man à clef he called Is­land of Hal­lu­ci­na­tion, which was never pub­lished, even af­ter his death in 1960. In 2005, Gib­son pub­lished a mem­oir in a schol­arly jour­nal re­count­ing the po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions his for­mer friend had dra­ma­tized, telling The Guardian he had ob­tained a copy of the man­u­script and had no ob­jec­tions to its pub­li­ca­tion. “I turn up as Bill Hart, the ‘su­per­spy,’” Gib­son said of the story.

Wright’s book now seems pre­scient. In a strange twist, on April 26, when the Na­tional Archives re­leased thou­sands of doc­u­ments per­tain­ing to the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy, they in­cluded three fat CIA files on Gib­son. Ac­cord­ing to th­ese doc­u­ments, he had served U.S. in­tel­li­gence from 1965 un­til at least 1977. This was well af­ter Wright wrote his book, and it’s not clear if Gib­son had en­gaged in es­pi­onage be­fore that pe­riod. But his files re­vealed his CIA code name, QRPHONE-1; his salary (as much as $900 a month); and his var­i­ous mis­sions, as well as his at­ti­tude (“en­er­getic”) and per­for­mance (“a self-starter”).

The most cu­ri­ous part of the story: Gib­son is still alive. He’s 87 and liv­ing abroad. (Gib­son “will not be able to your ques­tions,” said a fam­ily friend who an­swered the phone at his res­i­dence.)

The CIA is usu­ally vig­i­lant about de­fend­ing the con­fi­den­tial­ity of its sources and meth­ods. In an­nounc­ing the re­lease of the JFK files last year, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump de­clared

the records would be opened in their en­tirety, “ex­cept for the names and ad­dresses of liv­ing per­sons.” Save for Gib­son’s, ap­par­ently. (The CIA de­clined to com­ment for this story.)

Born in 1931, Gib­son grew up in Philadel­phia and at­tended Kenyon Col­lege in Ohio. A stint in the Army gave him a taste for Euro­pean life, and he moved to Rome and then to Paris. He wrote a novel, a de­tec­tive story called A Mir­ror for Mag­is­trates, and fell in and out with Wright and other ex­pa­tri­ate in­tel­lec­tu­als.

In 1957, Gib­son left Paris and went to work for CBS Ra­dio News, ac­cord­ing to his news­pa­per re­ports. With a col­league, he cov­ered the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion that brought Fidel Cas­tro to power. In 1960, Gib­son, who then sym­pa­thized with left­ist move­ments, co-founded the Fair Play for Cuba Com­mit­tee (FPCC), which de­fended Cas­tro’s gov­ern­ment from neg­a­tive cov­er­age in the North Amer­i­can press.

When he left CBS, Gib­son took over run­ning the FPCC, and it grew rapidly on col­lege cam­puses. He re­sisted sub­poe­nas from Se­nate in­ves­ti­ga­tors seek­ing to dis­credit the group and urged civil rights lead­ers to sup­port the Cuban cause.

Yet in July 1962, Gib­son quit the FPCC and wrote an anony­mous let­ter on the group’s sta­tionery to the CIA. If the agency would ar­range a se­cure meet­ing spot, he wrote, he could be of as­sis­tance.

The CIA fig­ured out who wrote the let­ter and made con­tact with the young intellectual. He had moved on to Switzer­land to be­come the English-lan­guage edi­tor of a new mag­a­zine called La Révo­lu­tion Africaine. In a Jan­uary 1963 memo, CIA Deputy Di­rec­tor Richard Helms in­formed the FBI that Gib­son had told an agency source about the ide­o­log­i­cal di­rec­tion of the mag­a­zine—fur­ther left—and how it planned to re­lo­cate 15 staff mem­bers from Paris to Al­giers.

When Kennedy was as­sas­si­nated on Novem­ber 22, 1963, the CIA asked Gib­son about ac­cused as­sas­sin Lee Har­vey Oswald, who had cor­re­sponded with the FPCC. Gib­son told them what lit­tle he knew and in­di­cated he wanted to “main­tain con­tact” with the U.S. gov­ern­ment.

In the sum­mer of 1964, Gib­son had an­other fall­ing-out, this time with the pub­lisher of La Révo­lu­tion Africaine, who ac­cused him of be­ing an agent of the FBI and CIA. When­ever the charge was re­peated years later, Gib­son shrugged it off. “If I’m CIA, where’s my pen­sion?” he told The Guardian in 2006.

By then, Gib­son was no longer work­ing for the agency. But his file shows that a Lan­g­ley of­fi­cer con­tacted him in Jan­uary 1965 and ar­ranged for a de­brief­ing and “test as­sign­ment” that sum­mer: “Af­ter re­cruit­ment and agree­ment to... [poly­graph] ex­am­i­na­tion, [s]ub­ject was in­tro­duced to his…case of­fi­cer.”

In his let­ters to the CIA’S spy, Baraka signed off with the vale­dic­tion “In strug­gle.”

He soon be­gan work­ing for the in­tel­li­gence ser­vice as a spy.

Four years later, ac­cord­ing to his file, the agency in­creased Gib­son’s taxfree salary of $600 a month to $900 a month (the equiv­a­lent of more than $6,000 in 2018 dol­lars). His mis­sion: to re­port on “his ex­ten­sive con­tacts among left­ist, rad­i­cal, and com­mu­nist move­ments in Europe and Africa.”

Gib­son, his wife and their two kids set­tled in Bel­gium, where he lived the life of a cos­mopoli­tan intellectual. He trav­eled widely and wrote a book about African lib­er­a­tion move­ments fight­ing white-mi­nor­ity rule. He also mon­i­tored the rev­o­lu­tion­ary poet and play­wright Amiri Baraka, who trusted him as an ide­o­log­i­cal com­rade. In his let­ters to the CIA’S spy, Baraka signed off with the vale­dic­tion “In strug­gle.” (Baraka’s son, Ras, is the mayor of Ne­wark, New Jer­sey.)

While the newly re­leased CIA files don’t in­clude op­er­a­tional de­tails, Gib­son seems to have been a pro­lific spy. One CIA memo as­serts that in 1977 his file con­tained more than 400 doc­u­ments.

His quip to The Guardian not­with­stand­ing, Gib­son even had a CIA pen­sion of sorts. In Septem­ber 1969, his case of­fi­cer noted that “QRPHONE/1 has be­gun to in­vest a por­tion of his monthly salary in a rep­utable mu­tual fund of his choice. This mod­est in­vest­ment pro­gram will en­hance fi­nan­cial security in the event of ter­mi­na­tion and/or a rainy day.”

Gib­son was still an “ac­tive agent” in 1977 when Congress re­opened the JFK in­ves­ti­ga­tion and started ask­ing ques­tions about the agency’s penetration of the FPCC in 1963. The House Se­lect Com­mit­tee on As­sas­si­na­tions asked to see Gib­son’s CIA file. The agency showed in­ves­ti­ga­tors only a small por­tion of it, but the en­tirety of the still-clas­si­fied ma­te­rial be­came part of the CIA’S ar­chive of JFK records.

That des­ig­na­tion would even­tu­ally change. In Oc­to­ber 1992, Congress passed a law man­dat­ing the re­lease of all JFK files within 25 years. Gib­son’s se­cret was safe for the time be­ing. In 1985, he suc­cess­fully sued a South African au­thor who as­serted he was a CIA agent. The book was with­drawn, and the pub­lisher is­sued a state­ment declar­ing that “Mr. Gib­son has never worked for the United States Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency,” a claim that no longer seems ten­able.

In 2013, Gib­son sold his col­lected pa­pers to Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. To cel­e­brate the ac­qui­si­tion, the univer­sity held a day­long sym­po­sium, “Richard Gib­son: Lit­er­ary Contrarian & Cold War­rior,” ded­i­cated to “fur­ther­ing our un­der­stand­ing of the intellectual and lit­er­ary his­tory of the Cold War.”

With the re­lease of Gib­son’s CIA files, schol­ars can now dis­cern the hid­den hand of the Amer­i­can clan­des­tine ser­vice in writ­ing that his­tory. When it came to the char­ac­ter who in­spired Bill Hart, “the su­per­spy,” Richard Wright’s fic­tion was per­haps ahead of its time.

WAR FA­TIGUES Gib­son’s re­la­tion­ship with Wright ap­peared to un­ravel over France’s war to keep its colony in Al­ge­ria. At left, Al­ge­rian soldiers in Al­giers in 1963.

THE WRIGHT STUFF In his un­pub­lished novel, Wright, be­low, seemed to al­lude to the fact that Gib­son was a spy. Above, Oswald. At left, Cas­tro.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.