Journalist spies lifted veil on Soviet Russia, 1920-21

Ralph Van Deman

Origins of the Military Intelligence Division

The Military Intelligence Division, first called the Military Intelligence Section, sprang from the upheavals stirred by World War I. Until that time, the United States had relied heavily on its European allies to provide intelligence information. But a few in the U.S. Army ranks understood that America could not assume world leadership unless it gathered its own information on political and economic developments. Foremost among those visionaries was Army Colonel Ralph Van Deman.[1]

Van Deman, who had overseen intelligence operations in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, recognized that with the approach of the Great War, the United States could no longer depend on allies and a handful of attaches assigned to American embassies to monitor military and diplomatic developments. In April 1917, he persuaded his superiors in Washington to create a military spy agency. As Van Deman was developing the organizational structure for the Military Intelligence Section, he considered two of Europe’s most robust spy agencies: that of Great Britain and that of France. Ultimately, he chose to model the American service after that of Great Britain, and he formed an organization that initially had sectors for administration (MI-1), collection and dissemination of foreign intelligence (MI-2), military counterespionage (MI-3), civilian counterespionage (MI-4), and code breaking (MI-8).[2]

As is often the case with government bureaucracies, Van Deman’s agency at times struggled to articulate its mission and cooperate with existing army intelligence operations in Europe. With General John Pershing insisting on gathering his own information on the ground in France, Van Deman focused mostly on counterintelligence — finding spies and provocateurs bent on harming America or its troops.

In addition to modeling his agency’s organizational structure after the British service, Van Deman adopted another British practice: the employment of journalists to collect information. At the time, the American press had only the most embryonic notions of ethics and objectivity. Reporters were expected to write the facts, but they did not have to be impartial. As Michael Schudson describes, the creed of objective reporting would not arise until after World War I as part of a greater movement toward professionalism.[3] Embodying this trend was the founding of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1923 and its codification of journalistic ethics advocating independence, freedom, and truth.[4]

But America in 1916 was a nation still learning its way in the world, and journalists were conflicted over whether to be patriots or truth tellers. While some newsmen expressed misgivings about the U.S. entry into what they believed to be a European conflict, many more rallied to support the Great War, inflamed in no small part by the propaganda churned out by George Creel’s Committee on Public Information. Initially set up to disseminate information about the war, the organization grew in numbers and power. Capitalizing on war fever, Creel parlayed a small staff working from a library in the Navy building near the White House into an organization that employed 395 staffers and thousands of volunteers. The Creel Committee rallied the war effort through posters, films, cartoons, billboards, and songs; distributed government speeches; developed lesson plans for schools; and issued ten press releases a day to fill the nation’s newspapers.[5] American news organizations gave their support to the cause, publishing patriotic articles and urging their readers to buy war bonds. It was but a small step for journalists to also aid the Allied effort by providing information to government intelligence agencies.

In Our Secret War, New York Sun reporter Thomas Johnson described the birth of the Army’s intelligence division and the officers who filled its ranks: “former college professors, linguists, globe-trotters, geographers, detectives, newspaper men, lawyers international and criminal, code experts, radio men, draftsmen, printers.”[6] Johnson described two agents — “A-1” and “A-2”— dispatched to Berlin, one posing as a reporter for a financial newspaper in order to gather economic data and the other pretending to work for the New York Sun to gather political information — a cover that was nearly blown when a real reporter for the Sun encountered the agent.

Aside from sending agents to pose as journalists, the Military Intelligence Division also solicited information from real reporters, including four who slipped secretly into Berlin and interviewed Socialist revolutionaries. The journalists were happy to share what they had learned with American army commanders and struck a deal about what information they could tell their readers.[7]

The most well-known of the Military Intelligence Division journalist spies was Marguerite Harrison, a Baltimore socialite who began her espionage career in 1917 giving tips to the U.S Department of Justice about suspected German agents in Baltimore while she was a music and theater reviewer at the Baltimore Sun.

A few months before World War I ended, Harrison officially applied to work as a spy for the Military Intelligence Division.  Harrison later wrote that she joined the service because she wanted to do her part for the war effort. But she undoubtedly also was drawn to espionage for the adventure. A seasoned traveler who could speak four languages fluently, Harrison promised she could be discreet. MID Director Brigadier General Marlborough Churchill agreed to hire her, making her the first American female foreign intelligence agent. Although the war ended before Harrison could take up her duties, Churchill sent her to Berlin in December 1918 to gather information that would aid the U.S. peace talks in Versailles.[8]

Harrison’s mission had the full knowledge and support of Baltimore Sun managing editor Frank Kent, further illustrating the complicated relationship between the press and the intelligence services. Kent was a well-regarded newsman who had traveled to Europe to see firsthand the conditions at the end of the war and had returned with the first uncensored accounts of the conflict in four years. His reports of tension among the Allies infuriated U.S. officials, but journalists praised his honest reporting.[9]

Nevertheless, Kent saw nothing contradictory about criticizing American policies while giving cover to an Army spy. After all, the Baltimore Sun had been an ardent supporter of the war from the time the United States entered the conflict. One of the paper’s owners, Van-Lear Black, had headed Maryland’s war bond publicity committee and assigned Sun clerks to sell bonds from the newspaper’s office. By 1919, the newspaper had sold more than four million dollars’ worth of bonds to 28,499 people.[10]

The newspaper assignment Kent devised to cover Harrison’s spy mission was innocuous enough. The Baltimore Sun had produced a motion picture titled Miles of Smiles to boost troop morale. The movie had been shot around Maryland showing the soldiers’ wives, parents, girlfriends, and children waving and holding up messages to their loved ones. With its production complete, Harrison would travel to Europe to show the movie to the homesick troops anxiously awaiting their return to Maryland. Once overseas, she would make her way to Germany and write feature stories while collecting intelligence information.[11]

Harrison took up her assignment in France in December 1918, although she and Van Deman later gave starkly different accounts of her objectives. Harrison wrote that her orders were to show the Sun movie to Maryland troops in France, and then travel to Berlin posing as a reporter to gather information on the economic and political conditions and the attitudes of the Germans toward the peace treaty.[12] Van Deman, who wrote his recollection more than fifty years later with the aid of a diary in which he had recorded names and dates of meetings, recalled that Harrison was assigned to Paris to keep an eye on the approximately one hundred newspaper correspondents assigned to cover the peace conference. A few weeks after she arrived, Van Deman learned that American Communist Robert Minor was distributing propaganda leaflets to U.S. troops. “Marguerite Harrison came into the office and I read the report to her. She offered to go to Germany herself and persuade Minor to come out with her in order that we might apprehend him in either British or American territory. For this purpose, she was authorized to go to Germany, which she did, and during the period she spent in Berlin she also witnessed and reported on the Communist uprising there.”[13]

Whether her work was to spy on other journalists or collect economic and political data, Harrison’s newspaper credentials gave her access to German government officials and allowed her to pass through military checkpoints. And, in many respects, she approached the work of espionage as she did that of journalism. To gather information, she talked to shopkeepers, chambermaids, soldiers, prostitutes, and bankers. She toured factories and collected data on unemployment and food supplies. Johnson, who interviewed Harrison for his book, described her as the mysterious “Agent Q” or “Number 8,” an agent so valued that her reports went directly to President Woodrow Wilson.[14]

When her work in Germany was complete, Harrison returned to Baltimore to await her next assignment.

Russian Enigma

Reliable information on Russia had always been difficult to obtain. Its vastness and complexity had made it a difficult country for journalists to cover. After the fall of the czar and the eruption of civil war in 1917, the mysteries of the country deepened. Few American reporters made it inside, with some notable exceptions. John Reed, who documented the revolution in his seminal work, Ten Days that Shook the World, was among a handful of Western journalists in Russia to witness the October Revolution. New York Mail reporter Rheta Childe Dorr attached herself to a regiment of female soldiers in Petrograd and witnessed clashes between government soldiers and the Bolsheviks until she left in September 1917.[15] Peggy Hull, who had covered U.S. troops in France, accompanied the American Expeditionary Force to Siberia in 1918.[16]  But as the Bolsheviks solidified their control, they carefully screened foreign journalists. They expelled Associated Press correspondents in late 1918 and refused entry to journalists from “bourgeois” newspapers, thus making it difficult for Western readers to get impartial news of the country.[17]

The American government was in the dark as well, even as the Wilson Administration debated whether to recognize the Bolshevik regime. In September 1918, Wilson dispatched nine thousand American troops to Siberia to aid Czechoslovakian prisoners stranded when Russia withdrew from World War I. But as the White Army assembled in Siberia to make a final stand against the Bolsheviks, the United States was pressed to decide whether to remain neutral or join the fight. The situation was so confusing that the Military Intelligence Division supplied the American Expeditionary Force with handbooks on Russia that included blank pages for the officers to record their own observations, but no one even bothered to collect the books.[18]

Almost two years after Bolsheviks seized power, the United States still had no coherent Russia policy. On the one hand, Wilson advocated the right of countries to choose their own forms of government. Yet he and many of his advisors detested Communism and secretly aided anti-Bolshevik efforts to oust Lenin.[19] By then the Red Scare had seized the United States. Even Nellie Bly, back from Austria where she had fled to escape debt collectors, professed that the United States “was nearest and dearest to her heart” and offered to spy for the Military Intelligence Division to save the country from Bolshevism. Marlborough Churchill told his men that her proposition “should not be taken seriously.”[20]

While Churchill was unwilling to take a chance on the unpredictable Nellie Bly, he did not dismiss the idea of using journalists to collect intelligence data or of using news organizations to provide cover for MID agents. Of the four American journalists arrested in Russia in 1920–21 on suspicion of espionage, two are known to have been working for the Military Intelligence Division and a third confessed to spying, although intelligence officials adamantly denied his claim.

Marguerite Harrison in Russia

Marguerite Harrison preparing to enter Russia, 1920.

Among the known journalist agents in Russia, Harrison became the most famous — and the most controversial. With the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Harrison returned to Baltimore and resumed her work as a theater and music critic for the Baltimore Sun while awaiting her next mission. Military officials were so pleased with her work in Germany, they argued among themselves about where she should go next. In October 1919, Churchill made his decision. He assigned Harrison a cipher book and the code name “B.” Her destination: Russia.[21]

Churchill needed to send one of his best agents to try to penetrate the fog of the Bolshevik government. America’s Russian spy network was in shambles. The head of its Moscow cell, Xenophon Kalamatiano, was in prison after being caught the year before in a plot to overthrow the Bolshevik government. The chief of the Petrograd ring, Vice Consul Robert W. Imbrie, had fled to Finland after the Bolshevik Revolution, but several of his accomplices had been captured trying to aid the White Army as it prepared to storm Petrograd.[22]

            Harrison’s mission in Russia depended entirely on her being able to convince the Reds that she was a journalist sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause who wanted only to tell American readers about the great advances in the workers’ paradise. But the Russians were alert to this ruse. Several British agents had posed as newspaper correspondents, and Kalamatiano had claimed to run an information service gathering economic data – until Cheka police found a list of ciphers, agents, and military positions hidden in his cane.[23]

            Harrison’s objective was to gather intelligence about the enemy and try to determine what had become of imprisoned Americans, including U.S. agents. As he had before, Baltimore Sun managing editor Kent furnished Harrison with credentials that allowed her to pose as a correspondent. She also secured assignments from the New York Evening Post and Underwood News Photo Service, which provided Harrison a reason to carry a camera. Additionally, Churchill arranged for her to meet Robert M. Collins, the Associated Press’s London bureau chief, who gave her letters affirming she was a wire-service correspondent. Agreeing to pay her fifty dollars a week if she succeeded in getting news from Russia, Collins wrote to Harrison: “Wishing you all success, and an interesting and valuable experience.”[24]

Because the United States did not have diplomatic relations with Russia, Harrison applied to Russia’s unofficial representative in New York, Ludwig Martens, for a visa. Martens refused, however, saying Soviet Russia was admitting only journalists who worked for Socialist newspapers. [25]

The Bolsheviks had good reason to keep out the foreign press. They were fighting to retain their hold on power in the face of opposition from monarchist, Socialist, and other Communist parties. The nationalization of industries and a blockade imposed by Western countries had created severe hardships. Fuel and food were scarce, factories were shuttered, and the carcasses of disabled locomotives littered the rail lines. The journalists who were allowed into the country were carefully monitored. British agent Francis McCullagh, who posed as a journalist in Moscow in early 1920, described the control that the Bolsheviks exerted over the foreign correspondents: Reporters were given visas to stay for only three weeks. If they did not write positive news about the Russian government or wrote nothing at all, they were expelled. Every aspect of their lives was monitored. They lived in a guesthouse along with spies from the Foreign Office. They were not allowed visitors without permission. The Bolsheviks arranged all their interviews and accompanied them when they attended meetings, toured intuitions, and even went to the theater. Foreign Affairs commissar Georgy Chicherin personally screened every story and wire dispatch before allowing reporters to send their items through the mail or radio. Even if reporters could somehow escape the censor, they knew they would be expelled immediately if they violated the rules.[26] But most insidious of all, Bolsheviks controlled journalists by sowing seeds of distrust in their work. A garbled message or a fake story could cast a journalist as a Bolshevik and thus a persona non grata in his or her own nation.[27]

But undeterred by Martens’s refusal to issue her a visa, Harrison journeyed to Poland, laying a trail of newspaper stories as she went. In February 1920, she secretly crossed the border into Russia. Traveling by sleigh and train, she arrived in Moscow, where she presented herself to somewhat surprised Bolshevik authorities telling them she was an American journalist who was sympathetic to Socialism and eager to report the truth about conditions in Russia.[28]

Harrison did not realize, however, that the Russian secret police agency, Cheka, knew she was a spy. The Reds probably had been tipped off by Socialists in Switzerland, through which she had passed on her way to Russia. The Bolsheviks allowed Harrison to remain in the country and provided her unprecedented access to reports that flowed into the Foreign Office. Then, early in April 1920, Cheka dropped its net, arresting Harrison on charges of espionage. Confronting her with irrefutable evidence of her spy work, including copies of dispatches she had sent to the U.S. State department, Cheka pressed Harrison into service as a double agent and forced her to give reports on foreigners in Moscow.[29]

MID soon learned that Harrison had been caught, but American officials could do little except hold to the slim hope that the Associated Press could rescue her by demanding her release. Collins cabled the Russian Foreign Office seeking to recall his correspondent, but his message was ignored.[30]

For six months, Harrison continued to smuggle reports to U.S. intelligence agencies through friendly aid workers and businessmen while at the same time providing information to the Cheka on foreigners who visited Russia, primarily Socialists, but also other journalists, including Stan Harding, a Socialist-leaning woman whom Harrison said was a British spy.[31] Then in October, Cheka became dissatisfied with Harrison’s work and arrested her. She spent almost a year in Russia’s notorious Lubyanka Prison before her health failed and she was transferred to a prison hospital. There she was held until July 30, 1921, when she was released in exchange for American food aid to Russia.

Arriving in Riga, Latvia, a few days after her release, Harrison dictated a report “of great value” giving her assessment of conditions in Russia. In the twelve-page document, Harrison asserted that the Communists were firmly entrenched in power and argued that the United States should recognize Soviet Russia, partly to institute a passport system that would control the entry of Bolshevik agents into the United States. Her report included information on churches, schools, military movements she had observed as she was leaving Russia, and precise data on coal supplies, transportation costs, and the taxation system.[32]

A week later, Harrison provided additional information to the MID office in Berlin, including accounts of mass executions, which she had denied occurred in the statements she gave to newspapers. She also made it clear she would continue her espionage work and volunteered to keep an eye on Senator Joseph France, a Maryland Republican who had traveled to Russia to win her release. Harrison believed he had been fooled by Soviet propaganda and she offered to make a list of the material he carried through customs.[33]

A year later, Harrison’s espionage work was revealed when Stan Harding launched a public campaign demanding compensation for her wrongful imprisonment. At the time, Harrison was traveling through Asia, gathering intelligence information that she passed along to the State department on political and economic conditions in Japan, Korea, China and Mongolia. When Harrison entered the Far Eastern Republic, the Soviets caught her again and returned her to Lubyanka Prison, much to the embarrassment of American officials. This time, her family was able to use its connections to secure her release.[34]

Harrison continued to provide information to the Army and State department for several more years. She died in Baltimore in 1967 at the age of 88.[35]

Weston Burgess Estes

Weston B. Estes

Weston B. Estes was an unusual person to charge with keeping state secrets. A dentist hailing from San Francisco, California, Estes passed bad checks and stole jewelry from a former girlfriend before eloping with a chorus girl. When he tried to divorce her, she accused him of domestic abuse and had him committed to an insane asylum for a morphine addiction. [36]

But war can redeem even the most incorrigible, and so when the United States entered World War I, Estes volunteered for the U.S. Army’s Dental Reserve Corps. In May 1918, he requested and received permission to enter the Military Intelligence Division. Stationed in New York, Estes apparently kept an eye on suspected radicals and draft dodgers. During this time, he seems to have become acquainted with John Reed. Records show Estes left the Army and MID in 1919, but he did not sever his ties with intelligence officers. When Estes departed for Russia in 1920, he carried with him letters of introduction to military attaches in the Baltic states and Scandinavia written by MID Director Marlborough Churchill.[37]

On his passport application, Estes stated that his intention was to pursue business interests and to “buy or take industrial films.”[38] He later told a gathering of physicians that he represented businessmen who wanted to know if the Western blockade was actually denying trade with American companies. As to the motion pictures, Estes said “there is a demand in this country for authentic information concerning those things which are going on in Soviet Russia.”[39]

Estes also he said was traveling at the behest of radicals in New York City who wanted to learn more about the triumphs of Communism in Soviet Russia.[40] Although Estes did have radical acquaintances whom he had met while working in New York, evidence points to other backers, including Herman M. Suter, a former member of the Creel Committee who had taken over management of the Washington Herald, a newspaper co-owned by Herbert Hoover.[41]

On January 16, 1920, Estes set sail from New York accompanied by photographer John Flick, who apparently was unaware of Estes’s intelligence connection. But Estes’ family knew. When the Bureau of Investigation launched an inquiry into the reason Estes was traveling to Russia, his family told agents he was on a secret assignment for the U.S. government.[42]

Historians have written about the intriguing possibility that Estes’s mission was to rescue John Reed, who himself may have been spying for the United States. At the time Estes departed New York, Reed was jailed in Finland after customs agents found him smuggled on a ship with false papers and diamonds.[43]

Some historians have speculated that Estes planned to win Reed’s release and travel with him to Russia, where they would stay briefly before returning to the United States. The plan was stymied when Finnish police cracked down on Communists agitators. Estes, who had become friends with Finnish radicals, fled to Estonia, but Reed remained in custody until he was tried, convicted, and expelled to Estonia, where Estes waited. Reed traveled on to Russia, but Estes and Flick stayed behind awaiting visas.[44]

While in Estonia, Estes sent a long article to Marlborough Churchill, asking him to pass the piece on to Suter at the Washington Herald. Based upon translations of Russian newspapers, the article provided information on economic conditions in Russia, including the numbers of disabled locomotives and steamships, coal production and factory employment. Estes promised he would send Churchill more such articles. He went on to explain his efforts to win Reed’s freedom from the Finnish jail and to acquire for him a false passport. Estes reported to Churchill contacts he had made among the radicals and assured him of his intent to enter Russia if at all possible.[45]

Eventually, Reed used his connections with Bolshevik leaders to secure permission for Estes and Flick to proceed to Russia. They entered the country on August 2, 1920, and four days later arrived in Moscow. That same evening, they were arrested on suspicion of espionage.[46]

If Estes had been sent to rescue Reed, it was now Reed who tried to save Estes, arguing for his release and acting as his interpreter during his first interrogation in Lubyanka. Reed’s work was in vain. Estes and Flick were separated and subjected to repeated interrogations. Flick later told intelligence officers that the Russians believed he and Estes had come to rescue Reed, who would die weeks later of typhus.[47] Estes recounted that the Bolsheviks pressed him to give up the names of other agents and threatened him with execution if he did not comply. Estes later told officials that an apparent leak inside the Military Intelligence Division had provided Russian security officials with his photo even before he arrived. He suspected that an Ohio businessman named Barnett Bobroff, who had a brother in the Russian government, played a role in his capture.[48] Another person may have been to blame, however. Harrison’s Russian prison file shows that she told her interrogators that Estes was pretending to be Washington reporter, but was an American spy.[49]

Cheka kept Estes for three months in solitary confinement and interrogated him twenty-three times. Months of imprisonment in the cold, dirty cell with inadequate food took their toll. Estes suffered from dysentery and fevers until the Bolsheviks transferred him to a hospital. Doctors wanted to operate on him, but he refused, fearing he would never survive. “Prison life in Russia is a constant ‘Hell’ for everybody,” he wrote.[50]

Flick and Estes were released on August 6, 1921, exactly a year after their arrest.  Little is known about Estes after he returned to the United States. In late September 1921, he visited Marguerite Harrison in Baltimore while on his way to Washington. According to the Baltimore Sun, Estes wanted to thank her for saving his life by sending him food packages. [51] That seems unlikely, however. In a letter he wrote shortly before his release, Estes told Red Cross officials that he had received his first aid package in June 1921. By then, Harrison was already in prison.[52]

The last known record of Estes is an open letter he addressed to New York Governor Alfred Smith that was published in the Rochester, New York, Democrat and Chronicle on February 14, 1924, protesting the pardon of Irish Socialist Jim Larkin. Estes argued that “there can be no greater crime against law and order, or against society than is embraced in a definition of what is essentially treason.” Estes wrote that while imprisoned in Russia, Cheka officials demanded he write letters to the American government seeking Larkin’s release, but he refused.[53]

After that, Estes disappears from the historical record, and no traces of him are found in newspaper archives or census documents.

Albert Boni

Albert Boni

Weston Estes and Marguerite Harrison pretended to be sympathetic to Socialism in order to persuade the Reds to allow them to enter Russia. Albert Boni, however, truly was a Socialist who wanted to see the Russian experiment first hand. And unlike Estes and Harrison who were on the Military Intelligence Division’s payroll, Boni had a more informal arrangement with the spy agency. When the Bolsheviks arrested Boni in July 1920, he told them he was attempting to gather information on counterfeit currency for the Military Intelligence Division. MID officials, however, adamantly denied that he worked for them, and the Russians inexplicably released him.

Boni’s work on behalf of Socialism may have saved him. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Boni was born in New York on October 21, 1892, and grew up in Newark, New Jersey, where at sixteen he became secretary of the local Socialist Party. After studying a year at Cornell and two years at Harvard, Boni left college and opened a bookstore with his brother in Greenwich Village in 1913. Three years later, he teamed up with Horace Liveright to create the Modern Library. Boni and Liveright were publishers of a number of left-leaning and radical authors, including Leon Trotsky.[54]

Given his enthusiasm for Socialism, it was not surprising that Boni wanted to witness the revolution in Russia. In the summer of 1919, he approached Sydney Friede, a former MID agent turned New York businessman. According to Friede, Boni was looking for a way to improve relations between the United States and Russia. Friede was unsure whether Boni was acting at the behest of Soviet officials or simply seeking a business partnership with Friede, who had once lived in Russia.[55]

In 1919, Boni and his wife traveled to Holland to obtain rights to Kaiser Wilhelm’s memoir for the McClure’s Syndicate. While abroad, he tried to go to Russia with Marxist revolutionary Karl Radek, but Boni was unable to secure a visa. Boni then proceeded to Berlin. During his wanderings, American agents kept close watch. The military observer in Berlin, Colonel Edward Davis, reported in January 1920 that Boni was staying at the Adlon Hotel and speculated that the publisher might be working as an intermediary between European Bolsheviks and America.[56] That spring, both Marlborough Churchill and J. Edgar Hoover suggested monitoring Boni’s correspondences with Bolshevik agitators.[57]

In early 1920, Boni asked the American embassy for passport assistance in traveling to the Baltics. According to Col. Edward Davis, Boni offered to gather information for the Military Intelligence Division. “I told him there was nothing special we desired,” Davis later wrote his superiors in Washington. “I sized him up as a man that could not be trusted with any of our affairs.” Nevertheless, Davis acknowledged that he had told Boni about the Army’s concern over counterfeit American money that was circulating in Russia. No one had been able to obtain any samples and Davis told Boni “that if he acquired any of it I would be glad to get it.”[58]

With unspecified assistance from the U.S. embassy in Berlin, Boni traveled to Estonia on June 23, 1920. His Socialist contacts helped Boni secure a visa and he entered Russia two days later. Boni later said he traveled to Russia for business reasons and most newspaper accounts of his imprisonment reported that he had gone to pursue book deals.[59] But Military Intelligence Division records, including the statement Boni gave when he was freed, described him as a correspondent for the New York Sun.[60]

Boni at last was in the country he had longed to see and meeting with Bolshevik revolutionaries, including Vladimir Lenin. But Boni soon ran into trouble. By his own account, he asked too many questions. One of his queries pertained to Stan Harding, the British journalist whom Marguerite Harrison had denounced as spy. Harrison told Boni that Harding had been arrested, but Boni persisted in asking Russian authorities about the welfare of the British journalist. Meanwhile, his disillusionment with Russia grew. He saw long lines of desperate Muscovites standing outside stores for food and clothing. He witnessed the corruption of the black market that thrived in the city.[61]  His friends Karl Radek and John Reed had secured for him permission to attend sessions of the Third International Congress, but after a few weeks the Bolsheviks began to doubt the sincerity of Boni’s commitment to Communism.[62]

Four weeks after entering Russia, Cheka arrested Boni on suspicion of espionage. He quickly admitted to working for the Military Intelligence Division’s Berlin outpost, a confession that was widely reported in American newspapers.

Davis told his superiors that Boni lied about his work for MID in hopes the Bolsheviks would spare his life if he could provide them information about American spy operations. Davis was scathing in his condemnation of Boni, calling him a “sitting-room Bolshevik” and saying that “he is a weak character of acute but unsubstantial mentality; that he will lie, in a pinch and that he is of no special consequence in his present stage of development.”[63] The military observer in Riga, Latvia, Major T.W. Hollyday, was more measured in his assessment of Boni. Writing after Boni’s capture, Hollyday said he did not believe the publisher “is in sympathy with Communism or Bolshevism but that he is trying to secure information on real conditions in Russia in order to publish a book.”[64]

Boni spent six weeks in solitary confinement and seven more weeks in internment camps until his wife and friendly Socialists persuaded the Bolsheviks to release him.

Arriving in Reval, Estonia, in late October 1921, Boni gave American Consul Charles Albrecht an account of the Americans held prisoner and his impression of the Congress of the Third International, which he called “a joke.” He continued with his assessment of political conditions in Russia and noted the growing power of the secret police.[65]

Boni, once an ardent supporter of Bolshevik Russia, had become thoroughly disillusioned with the regime. He did not give up on Socialism, however. He returned to America where he and his brother founded a new publishing house whose works included Max Eastmann’s Breaking Through Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution and Trotsky’s History of Russian Revolution. In the 1930s, Boni’s interest turned to photography and micro printing. He died on July 31, 1981, at age 88.[66]

Condemnation and Concern

Stan Harding

The clandestine activities of American journalists in Russia were mostly refuted and ignored until 1922, when British journalist Stan Harding began a highly public campaign to win compensation for the hardships she had endured in the Russian prison as a result of Marguerite Harrison’s betrayal. An American intelligence officer offered Harding money in exchange for her silence, which outraged the British woman even more. She demanded a public apology for a system that had led an American agent to denounce an innocent journalist.[67]

Newspapers, meanwhile, picked up on the theme of journalism ethics and stressed the evil of allowing intelligence agents to pose as journalists. “An ugly blow at honesty and independence in journalism was struck by the combination of secret agent and special correspondent which some ill-advised American authorities evolved,” the editors of the Manchester Guardian wrote. “But the main thing is the light thrown on this case should make the vicious experiment impossible of repetition.”[68] Editor and Publisher demanded answers to Harding’s allegations for the sake of the “honor of the American journalistic profession.”[69] For her part, Harrison stuck to her allegation that Harding had been a spy. In 1938, Harrison’s publisher was forced to pay Harding five thousand dollars to settle a libel suit.[70]

             In April 1923, the newly formed American Society of Newspaper Editors adopted the first national code of ethics, calling for journalists to refute propaganda and to act in the public interest. Included in its “Canon of Journalism” was the assertion that journalists must be free “from all obligations except that of fidelity to the public interest.”[71] With an increased focus on professionalism, journalists embraced ideals of objectivity and truth against a rising concern over public relations and propaganda. The journalists who gathered at the first ASNE meeting understood that their credibility was on the line.

Nevertheless, the cooperation between journalists and American intelligence services did not end. The Military Intelligence Division disbanded, but its successors, including the Central Intelligence Agency, continued to employ journalists to aid foreign operations and to use news organizations to provide cover for agents.

            Following the Church Committee investigation in 1976, CIA Director Admiral Stansfield Turner issued a policy directive against employing journalists or using American news organizations as cover. Nevertheless, the practice continued, as CIA Director John Deutch disclosed before a Senate committee hearing in 1996.[72] The use of journalists as spies was too valuable a tool to abandon entirely. The newspaper spies in Bolshevik Russia set the precedent. Admittedly, their missions were not entirely successful. Weston Estes was unable to rescue John Reed. Albert Boni apparently returned with no samples of counterfeit money. And in trying to account for missing American spies, Marguerite Harrison was trapped into working as a double agent and embroiled in an international scandal. All three were captured and imprisoned. Yet each left Russia with valuable information on the political, economic, and social conditions inside a country that was cloistered in mystery. Their work, along with that of unknown agents who were never revealed, gave impetus to the continued use of journalists in American spy operations.          


[1]James L. Gilbert, World War I and the Origins of the U.S. Military Intelligence (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012), 11.

[2]Ibid., 29.

[3]Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 121–123.

[4]Stephen J. A. Ward, The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 214–215.

[5]David Greenberg, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), 107–111.

[6]Thomas M. Johnson, Our Secret War: True American Spy Stories, 1917-1919 (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1929), 23.

[7]Ibid., 270.

[8]Marguerite Harrison, There’s Always Tomorrow: The Story of a Checkered Life (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935), 90–95.

[9]Harold A. Williams, The Baltimore Sun, 18371987 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 157–158.

[10]Ibid., 154–155.

[11]Harrison, 94–95.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Major General Ralph H. Van Deman, The Final Memoranda, ed. Ralph E. Weber (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Imprint, 1988), 84–85.

[14]Johnson, 301.

[15]Ishbel Ross, Ladies of the Press: The Story of Women in Journalism by an Insider (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1936), 110–112.

[16]Emmett Crozer, American Reporters on the Western Front, 1914-1918 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 151–155.

[17]Oliver Gramling, AP: The Story of News (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1940), 290–291.

[18]Gilbert, 212–217.

[19]David S. Foglesong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 114–125.

[20]Office of MID, Customhouse, NY, to Acting Director of Military Intelligence Division, March 6, 1919, File 10297-331, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, Box 607, National Archives at College Park, MD; Marlborough Churchill to Assistant Chief of Staff, May 16, 1919, File 10297-331, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, Box 607, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[21]From Director of Military Intelligence to Military Attaché, Warsaw, Poland, Oct. 22, 1919; Marlborough Churchill to Edward Davis, Sept. 2, 1919, and Edward Davis to Washington, September 25, 1919; Sherman Miles, Military Intelligence Division General Staff to Military Attaché American Embassy, Paris, Oct. 22, 1919 in File PF-39205, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, Box 607, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[22]Foglesong, 114–125.

[23]Ibid.

[24]Robert Collins to Marguerite Harrison, Nov. 12, 1919, in Marguerite Harrison File, P-47767, Russian Federal Security Bureau Archive, Moscow, Russia.

[25]Harrison, 213.

[26]Francis McCullagh, A Prisoner of the Reds: A Story of a British Officer Captured in Siberia (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1922), 233–247.

[27]Ibid., 307.

[28]Harrison, 254–273.

[29]Ibid., 308–311.

[30]Hurley to Winslow, May 15, 1920, Oscar Solbert to Washington, May 27, 1920, File PF-32905, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, Box 607, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[31]Marguerite Harrison File, P-47767, Russian Federal Security Bureau Archive, Moscow, Russia.

[32]Report 1807 dictated by “B” to T. Worthington Holliday, Aug. 2, 1921, File 2070-2117, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, microfilm 1443, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[33] Report 2190, “Russia: Current Conditions By B,” Aug. 10, 1921, File 2070-2117, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, microfilm 1443, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[34]Harrison, 540-542; Joseph Ames to Dewitt Poole, Feb. 25, 1923, File 316.112 Marguerite Harrison File, RG 59, Department of State Decimal File, 1910-1929, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[35]“Mrs. A.M. Blake, Journalist, Dies,” Baltimore Sun, July 17, 1967, C16.

[36]“Miss Wadham Wants Her Property Back,” San Francisco Call, Nov. 12, 1901, 12; “Pretty Chorus Girl Says She Was Cruelly Treated,” San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 14, 1904, 11; “Denies Decree to Dr. Estes,” San Francisco Call, Dec. 30, 1904, 16.

[37] T.C. Cooke to Gen. Coxe, July 23, 1920, File 237-23, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[38] “United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QV5B-89HN : 16 March 2018), Neston[sic] Burgess Estes, 1920 from Passport Application, New York, United States, source certificate #158457, Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925, M1490 and M1372, National Archives at College Park, MD. 

[39]Dr. Weston B. Estes, “Russian Experiences,” Long Island Medical Journal, 15, no. 12 (Dec. 1921): 410.

[40]Ibid.

[41] “Announcement,” The Washington Herald, Dec. 8, 1919, 1; Richard B. Spence, “John Reed, “American Spy? Reed, American Intelligence, and Weston Estes’ 1920 Mission to Russia,” American Communist History, 13, No. 1, (2014): 54. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14743892.2014.896642.

[42]W.B. Esles [sic]-Europe-Radical Matter, Nov. 4, 1920, Bureau of Investigation file 202600-183, National Archives, College Park, MD.

[43] Spence, 39–63.

[44]Ibid., 57.

[45]Weston B. Estes to Marlborough Churchill, June 10, 1920, file 207-23, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[46]Estes, 411.

[47] Statement of John Flick, Bolshevism—Negative, Aug.15 1921, File 2070-2119/12, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, microfilm 1443, National Archives at College Park, MD.  

[48]Statement of William [sic] Estes, Bolshevism—Negative, Aug.15 1921, File 2070-2119/9, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, microfilm 1443, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[49]Marguerite Harrison File, P-47767, Russian Federal Security Bureau Archive, Moscow, Russia.

[50]Dr. Weston B. Estes to Director of American Red Cross, Riga, Latvia, July 7, 1921, File 164-331, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[51] “Says He Owes His Life to Baltimore Woman,” Baltimore Sun, Sept. 26, 1921, 18.

[52] Estes to Director of American Red Cross, July 7, 1921.

[53] Weston B. Estes, “Open Letter to Governor Smith,” Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, Feb. 14, 1923, 13.

[54]August A. Imholtz Jr., “Albert Boni: A Sketch of a Life in Micro-Opaque,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, “From Microprint to Megapixels: The Fifty-Year Partnership Between Readex and the American Antiquarian Society,” 115, part 2, (2006) 253–273.

[55] Office of MID, New York, to Director of Military Intelligence Division, July 17, 1919, file 10110-1334, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[56]Bolshevism in the Ukraine, Jan. 15, 1920, file 214-53/27, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[57]J. Edgar Hoover to Col. A.B. Coxe, May 20, 1920, file 10110-1656/32 RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[58]Col. Davis to Director of Military Intelligence, Feb. 2, 1921, file 10110-1344/19, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[59]“Persistent Wife Frees Him from Russian Prison,” Chicago Tribune, Nov 25, 1921, 1.

[60]“Conditions in Soviet Russia, Statement by Albert Boni,” Nov. 8, 1920, file 1011-1344/10, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[61]Albert Boni, “Soviets Use Terrorism to Combat Fears of People,” Globe and Commercial Advertiser (New York, NY), Jan. 18, 1921, 4.

[62]Albert Boni, “Communists Ruling Russia Absolutely, Boni Learns,” The Globe and Commercial Advertiser (New York, NY), Jan. 11, 1921, 4.

[63] Col. Davis to Director of Military Intelligence, Feb. 2, 1921, file 10110-1344/19, RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[64] T.W. Hollyday to Director of Military Intelligence, Sept. 9, 1920. PF 50137/24. RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.        

[65]“Conditions in Soviet Russia,” Nov. 2, 1920, file 10110-1344/10 RG 165 (War Department General Staff), Military Intelligence Division, National Archives at College Park, MD.

[66]Imholtz, 273.

[67]Stan Harding, Underworld of State (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1925), 204–205.

[68]“An Unhappy Incident,” Manchester Guardian, May 7, 1923, 1.

[69]Herbert C. Ridout, “British Journalists Are Stirred up by Mrs. Stan Harding Charges,” Editor and Publisher, Sept. 23, 1922, 14.

[70]“Former Baltimoreans Book Made Grounds for Libel Suit,” Baltimore Sun, April 21, 1938, 26.

[71]“A Newspaper Code,” New York Times, April 29, 1923, 2.

[72]CIA’s Use of Journalists and Clergy in Intelligence Operations, Hearing Before The

Select Committee On Intelligence of the United States Senate, 104th Cong. 6-9 (1996) (statement of John M. Deutch).

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