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Quicksilver Times: a study in the infiltration and manipulation of alternative media

by history buff Thursday, May. 10, 2007 at 9:42 AM

Some things change, some don't.

It is inconceivable that Indymedia has not been infiltrated, not just by freelance, self-serving opportunists, and amoral, social climbing careerists, but by paid agents of a variety of various governments' intelligence services. Infiltration of alternative media is nothing new. Au contrair. By now, most modern activists have an at least passing acquaintance with the FBI's Sixties era dirty tricks campaign against the anti-war and civil rights movements, called COINTELPRO. Less well known is the CIA's Operation MHCHAOS. Since it was focused on domestic targets, it was technically illegal, and as such, was heavily covered up. It features prominently in Angus Mackenzie's Secrets: The CIA's War At Home, the definitive study of the CIA's resistance to the Freedom of Information Act, and a must read for any activist who wants to stay out of trouble and still be effective. IMCistas can learn much that is useful today from the history of how alternative media was infiltrated and manipulated back in the day. So let's examine one such case, that of the Quicksilver Times. As you read the following passage from Mackenzie's book, keep in mind how much more sophisticated their techniques must be, now that they have had four decades to refine them:

* * * * *

One of Ober's top agents, who excelled at analyzing divisions between political camps, was Chicago-born Salvatore John Ferrera, a diminutive young man with black hair, black eyes, and (according to his girlfriend of the time) a frightfully nervous stomach. He was recruited by the CIA while studying political science at Loyola University in Chicago. From his studies, he developed an ability to navigate the ideological, strategic, and tactical differences of the antiwar groups in the United States and abroad. Only a few bare facts of Ferrera's story as a domestic spy have surfaced, lines here and there in scattered news reports. The full story is still classified as secret, but what is now known provides a noteworthy illustration of Ober's operation at work.

Ferrera's first assignment was to infiltrate a group of antiwar activists who were setting out to publish a tabloid newspaper in Washington, D.C. Their leader was Terrence "Terry" Becker Jr., a former college newspaper editor and former Newhouse News Service reporter. Becker was struggling to assemble the first issue of Quicksilver Times when Ferrera walked up the stairs of a recently rented white clapboard house that was to serve the group as both home and office. With Ferrera was a friend, William Blum, who introduced Ferrera to Becker. Blum was an old hand in Washington's dissident circles. He had recently resigned from the State Department and in 1967 helped found the Washington Free Press. Becker welcomed Ferrera as Blum's buddy, and Ferrera offered to help Becker with the task at hand: building frames for light tables. Once finished, they inserted the bulbs and got down to the business of pasting together the first issue of Quicksilver Times.

Ober was kept well informed about Quicksilver and hundreds of newspapers like it. According to CIA officer Louis Dube, Ober soon learned that Quicksilver was "just making it financially" and that the newspaper "was not receiving outside financial help, foreign or domestic." Again, however, despite the lack of any evidence of foreign funding, Ober kept investigating. At Quicksilver, Ferrera made himself indispensable as a writer and photographer. His articles and photographs appeared in nearly every issue, in more than thirty issues altogether. After writing one piece under his own name -- on June 16,1969, in the first issue of the paper -- he assumed a pseudonym, Sal Torey.

Ferrera made an ideal domestic CIA operative: young and hip-looking, with a working vocabulary of the Left. Born January 5, 1945, to immigrant parents who owned a Chicago restaurant/bar, Ferrera was raised in a four-story brick house on a tree-lined street, to which he would return on holidays between CIA, assignments. His appearance was reasonably modish, with a Beatles-style haircut. After earning a master's degree at Loyola University, he had moved to Washington as a doctoral candidate in political science at George Washington University. At Loyola, Ferrera had written his master's thesis on Marxism, with particular emphasis on the conflict between orthodox Marxists and the upstarts Fidel Castro, Che Guevera, and Aegis Defray, who had advocated a leap into guerrilla struggle. Ferrera had read Marx on economics, Castro on revolution, and North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap on military tactics and strategy. Probably he was more widely read in the literature of the Left than were many of the dissident writers he was spying on. Ferrera's studies also gave him a fairly astute understanding of ideological divisions within the antiwar movement, divisions that other agents would later exploit to weaken the movement.

One of Ferrera's early targets was Karl Hess. An influential conservative Republican, Hess had headed the party's platform committee in 1960 and 1964 for Barry Goldwater, but by the late 1960s he had strayed from his party into the ranks of antiwar radicalism. He was editing a libertarian-anarchist newsletter, The Libertarian, and was about to launch a new publication, Repress, intended to document the growing repression of liberty in the United States. Hess was especially interested in uncovering police espionage and surveillance. Repress was never published, but Ferrera spent quite a lot of time working on it, all the while reporting back to Ober about Hess's activities.

Ferrera also sent Ober reports on the Youth International Party, better known as the Yippies. When the U.S. Justice Department indicted Yippie leaders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and other antiwar activists for conspiring to cross state lines to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Quicksilver staff got parade permits for a protest march in front of the Justice Department. The subsequent "Chicago Eight" trial turned into a major courtroom confrontation between the Nixon administration and the antiwar movement. (The case became known as the "Chicago Seven" after defendant Bobby Seale was removed and tried separately.) Ferrera befriended the defendants and interviewed their lawyers, William Kunstler and Leonard Wingless, providing the CIA with inside intelligence about the most important political trial of the era. Ferrera's pose as a newsman allowed him to ask questions, take notes, and photograph his targets, and his pose as a friend of the movement let him insinuate himself into meetings where antiwar actions and legal strategies were planned.

Ober and FBI counterintelligence chief William Sullivan employed one special agent, Samuel Popish, just to carry thousands of daily reports by hand between FBI and CIA headquarters, and at least seven FBI informants were deployed around Becker, Ferrera, and Blum at Quicksilver. New volunteers at Quicksilver's staff meetings sowed op- position to the paper's founders, which led to a shutdown of the newspaper at a critical moment. Several of the supermilitant newcomers took control of the Quicksilver office and literally hurled Becker's allies out the door and down the stairs. A white female supporter of Becker was called a white racist by the black leader among the newcomers, who threw her to the floor and hit her in the face. Becker's allies did manage to get some of their production equipment out of the building, including their homemade light tables, and moved everything to another apartment building, but publication had to be suspended just as Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia. The answering protests were a high-water mark of the antiwar movement. College students conducted a nationwide strike at more than three hundred campuses, but Quicksilver was unable to print one word on the action.

In an FBI report about Quicksilver, since declassified, the FBI special agent in charge assured headquarters that he was continuing to use his agents to create dissension within protest groups. In his words, he was "continuing attempts to develop plans to utilize sources to promote political differences in New Left organizations." He also re- ported that he was planning to produce a newsletter to counter Quicksilver.

On May 8, 1970, Quicksilver Times resumed publishing and Salvatore Ferrera sent Ober several reports on the reconstituted newspaper commune. Terry Becker had been shaken by the earlier influx of disruptive volunteers. Because of the democratic form of Quicksilver meetings, meetings, the newcomers had each been accorded one vote and so were able to overthrow him. But now Becker was beginning to suspect this had been a government-directed coup, and he took steps to tighten his control of the paper and keep out dissenters. Becker would no longer accept people who simply showed up on his doorstep, posing as helpers. As it turned out, Ferrera also was eased out, even though Becker had no inkling that Ferrera was a CIA agent. "We collectivized at that point," Becker says. "If you worked on the paper, you had to live in the house. No outside income. If you had outside income, you pooled it. No outside jobs. The paper paid everybody's bills. We were criticized for being too closed, but it was the only way to avoid a repetition of what had happened."

Ferrera wrote that the collective was so tense and introspective he found it difficult to tolerate: "No male or female chauvinism is tolerated. Both sexes at the Quicksilver collective assist in all aspects of the commune. There is . . . plenty of sex and this causes problems." Ferrera reported that one woman was spending less time with the father of her child and more with another man. Ferrera told Ober that he could not imagine living so close to the people he was spying on, day in and day out. "He wouldn't even consider staying there," a CIA agent later reported.

- - pp 31-34

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Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 100 posted about this article.
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Salvatore John Ferrera picture of CIA agent Saturday, May. 12, 2007 at 4:36 PM
Intelligence Testing repost Monday, May. 14, 2007 at 1:47 PM
From: Ralph McGehee repost Tuesday, May. 15, 2007 at 3:52 AM
Angus Mackenzie R.I.P. Tuesday, May. 15, 2007 at 4:45 AM
"The underground press was the spinal column of the antiwar movement." quote of the day Tuesday, May. 15, 2007 at 12:27 PM
Was Angus Mackenzie murdered? cancer as a weapon Tuesday, May. 15, 2007 at 1:10 PM
It wouldn't have been the first murder by cancer. history buff Tuesday, May. 15, 2007 at 1:20 PM
Then there was Mae . . . history buff Tuesday, May. 15, 2007 at 1:33 PM
NYT review repost Tuesday, May. 15, 2007 at 1:48 PM
Eye-opening tale Stan Flouride (aka Kevin Kearney) Wednesday, May. 16, 2007 at 12:29 AM
SF Chronicle review repost Wednesday, May. 16, 2007 at 1:26 AM
The John Lennon FBI Files more MHCHAOS Wednesday, May. 16, 2007 at 1:55 AM
perps history buff Wednesday, May. 16, 2007 at 4:31 AM
thanks, 'buff' sd Wednesday, May. 16, 2007 at 1:18 PM
Repression as State Strategy repost Thursday, May. 17, 2007 at 12:12 PM
The Spymaster's Tale repost Thursday, May. 17, 2007 at 12:26 PM
"Daniel Borgstrm" pointer Thursday, May. 17, 2007 at 12:29 PM
Indymedia and British Intelligence Services repost Thursday, May. 17, 2007 at 1:17 PM
More Govt Attacks on Indymedia Greece repost Thursday, May. 17, 2007 at 1:28 PM
Chaos And Political Terrorism In America repost Thursday, May. 17, 2007 at 2:46 PM
nope reason for hiding. Friday, May. 18, 2007 at 12:14 PM
COINTELPRO, Then and Now repost Friday, May. 18, 2007 at 1:59 PM
The infiltration of Clamshell Alliance history buff Sunday, May. 20, 2007 at 2:01 PM
reasons for hiding sd Wednesday, May. 23, 2007 at 10:15 AM
wrong "It was spot-on in questioning" Wednesday, May. 23, 2007 at 6:24 PM
To reiterate, Indymedia is in the very first sentence of this post welp Wednesday, May. 23, 2007 at 8:04 PM
To reiterate, Indymedia is in the very first sentence of this post welp Wednesday, May. 23, 2007 at 8:04 PM
paid? where did you get that? Wednesday, May. 23, 2007 at 8:18 PM
"where did you get that?" welp Wednesday, May. 23, 2007 at 10:17 PM
"welp" history buff Thursday, May. 24, 2007 at 2:13 AM
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. (pt 1.) history buff Thursday, May. 24, 2007 at 2:46 AM
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. (pt 2.) history buff Thursday, May. 24, 2007 at 2:49 AM
And more recently, and closer to home . . . history buff Thursday, May. 24, 2007 at 2:57 AM
The case of National Committee Against Repressive Legislation (NCARL) history buff Thursday, May. 24, 2007 at 4:23 AM
"attempts to distract us from our study of the phenomenon of infiltration" welp Thursday, May. 24, 2007 at 6:22 AM
interesting thread sd Thursday, May. 24, 2007 at 12:38 PM
From the forest itself comes the handle for the axe Thursday, May. 24, 2007 at 12:47 PM
Arkies and "non coordanated" response. sd Thursday, May. 24, 2007 at 1:03 PM
welp (pt 2.), etc. history buff Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 2:33 PM
Who's a rat? pointer Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 2:33 PM
we are in agreement... sd Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 2:58 PM
Moderation is not the only issue. buff Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 3:04 PM
talking 'bout IMC sd Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 3:11 PM
I missed your reply sd Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 3:26 PM
Damnit sd Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 6:41 PM
"Damnit" b Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 9:56 PM
those are great points sd Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 10:11 PM
lost my point sd Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 11:06 PM
please excuse me. sd Friday, May. 25, 2007 at 11:15 PM
We an learn from the past, or we can repeat it. history buff Sunday, May. 27, 2007 at 1:13 PM
I resist... sd Sunday, May. 27, 2007 at 4:46 PM
open process I disagree Monday, May. 28, 2007 at 12:59 PM
FBI monitored peace group in Spokane, used spy repost Monday, May. 28, 2007 at 2:38 PM
a few points sd Tuesday, May. 29, 2007 at 10:50 AM
points etc. Wednesday, Jun. 06, 2007 at 1:37 AM
Other problems 222 Wednesday, Jun. 06, 2007 at 11:38 AM
one point sd Wednesday, Jun. 06, 2007 at 12:23 PM
"The IMC's cannnot be trusted" welp Wednesday, Jun. 06, 2007 at 1:55 PM
There they go again more disinformatiuon Tuesday, Jun. 12, 2007 at 1:16 PM
"Who watches the watchers?" not us Tuesday, Jun. 12, 2007 at 2:03 PM
To Nessie Tia Tuesday, Jun. 12, 2007 at 2:41 PM
everybody watches sd Tuesday, Jun. 12, 2007 at 2:49 PM
what a tight knit little crew "I spoke to the person responsible" Tuesday, Jun. 12, 2007 at 7:29 PM
Tia: what a pice of work more Zionist bullsh*t Thursday, Jun. 14, 2007 at 3:41 PM
"I have abandoned SF-IMC" welp Saturday, Jun. 16, 2007 at 4:26 PM
welp et al, etc. obvious pseudonym Tuesday, Jun. 26, 2007 at 1:58 AM
Mr. Josh Bowers Tuesday, Jul. 17, 2007 at 6:15 PM
The CIA really IS editing Wikipedia repost Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007 at 10:13 AM
murder by cancer theMickeys Sunday, Nov. 01, 2009 at 12:17 AM
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