Spy Talk : Newsweek’s Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the Newsweek Spy Talk columnist. He is an interesting figure to consider from the standpoint of history and narrative. I hadn’t realized that Stein had an anti-CIA history of his own .

The happiest ending. Newsweek columnist Jeff Stein proudly meets the killer of his US Army comrades and Vietnamese spy network: deputy commander of North Vietnamese military intelligence—Major General Tran Tien Cung. (c) Newsweek

Stein wrote the 1992 book: “A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War” which focuses on the 1969 murder of a suspected North Vietnamese intelligence agent and the dishonored Green Beret Colonel Robert Rheault which led to many conspiracy theories about the CIA. Rheault emerged at the center of a conflict between the CIA and Green Berets which painted both groups unfavorably and contributed as part of the inspiration for the release of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. Stein has the appearance of fomenting anti-CIA sentiment and assisting Russian intelligence through his amplification of this proto-Snowden storyline.

I already knew about the Rheault case because I have done some research about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula movie (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) which seems to recall significant aspects of Russian cultural history; not present in Bram Stoker’s original book.

I had framed the Coppola film in the context of Coppola’s relationship with Orson Welles, who had produced radio adaptations of “Dracula” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in the 1930’s and had a background strongly linked to Russian espionage.

Welles had been unable to finance his anti-fascist “Heart of Darkness” movie, and he made “Citizen Kane” instead (which got him investigated as a possible communist by the FBI). Coppola has made no secret that his “Apocalypse Now” film is heavily inspired by Welles’ unfinished HoD concept and radio play. In this sense, Apocalypse Now does not hide the fact that it is an anti-fascist film about American involvement in the Vietnam war, which constructs America as a ‘gothic monster’ and fascistic.

The film had also been inspired by the VVAW “Winter Soldier Investigation” (and connected to “The Winterfilm Collective”) which according to Ion Mihai Pacepa was the product of Yuri Andropov’s World Peace Council (WPC) disinformation.

(Beyond his influence from Welles, Coppola had also been inspired to become a director by the works of the Soviet propagandist Sergei Eisenstein and his first movie: “Battle Beyond the Sun” was a simple redubbing of a Russian sci-fi movie (“The Heaven’s Call“).)

Coppola even won a film award directly from Vladimir Putin in 2005 (one of only two Americans to ever do so – the other being the similarly Orson Welles-inspired Roman Polanski), for his “films that faithfully recounted the horrors of war”. (It is not entirely clear if this was a cheeky reference to the more obvious Apocalypse Now, Dracula, or both.)

Where this all links back to Jeff Stein is that Coppola’s Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius (screenwriter of “Red Dawn”) had based his Colonel Kurtz character on the real life Robert Rheault (who he saw as a “great man”). The Rheault case had carried considerable currency in the left wing magazines of the day – like New Republic – as a means of highlighting the supposed treachery of the CIA and evils of war. While it has often been hotly debated whether it is a pro-war or anti-war film, it is however clear today that Apocalypse Now served a historically anti-fascist and pro-Kremlin narrative based on its pedigree and awards (regardless of being written by the red-baiting Milius).

Stein is quick to tout his intelligence credentials, which amount to one year of service in Vietnam around the same time as the Rheault affair (1968 – ‘Thanksgiving’ 1969). He was an Army intelligence officer there. He contributed information which was used in the Phoenix program (est 1967), used as a basis for the assassination of Communist agents.

According to Stein, his role was “controlling a network of Vietnamese spies, tracking the movement of enemy forces” and “such ‘raw intelligence’ was passed along to the local office of the Phoenix Program, a highly classified CIA operation to “neutralize” Viet Cong agents in the countryside. ”

In his 1992 book, Stein covered the Phoenix program critically, spending a considerable time on Daniel Ellsberg, an ideological forerunner of Edward Snowden — who leaked “The Pentagon Papers” over his displeasure with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Phoenix program.

Of Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers, the CIA said:

The collective totality of Agency material in the Pentagon Papers would tell any sophisticated or professional outsider a very great deal about how the Agency goes about doing its business… This would constitute a major windfall for any hostile intelligence service and greatly facilitate future denigration operations, including the preparation of fabricated documents, forgeries or other types of tailored disinformation…It is against this backdrop that the Administration’s concern and efforts against Ellsberg must be viewed…

Despite developing a distaste for military intelligence after just one year, Stein did see fit to return to Vietnam in 2017 to have a friendly handshake with his Vietcong nemesis: North Vietnamese military intelligence Major General Tran Tien Cung. He met the ailing general secretively as he lay on his deathbed; covering his career in a ‘hagiographic’ fashion (despite his generally skeptical positions on US intelligence, and seeming disillusionment with Phoenix).

Much like his apparent endorsement of the work of Ellsberg, Stein was incredibly skeptical of the narrative that Edward Snowden was a Russian asset, dismissing the voices of many in Congress and the Intelligence Community in 2014. Instead, he crafted a narrative which suggested Snowden might be a Chinese asset, and also presented Oleg Kalugin’s position that regardless of whether Snowden was a spy or not, Russia would end up with whatever he had. Generally, Stein seems more focused on the negative connotation of the “Orwellian” nature of the NSA surveillance program, rather than any sort of treachery which Snowden espoused.

Stein has also found himself at the center of controversial reporting over the US-Israel relationship on more than one occasion, in ways which could be seen as damaging to that relationship. I’m sure there are myriad other examples I haven’t found.

Russia Insider, a notorious disinformation site — claims that Newsweek is a deep state” “neoconservative” magazine “written by PR hacks at the Pentagon” advancing an “anti-Russia” agenda. They even go so far as to portray Stein as a tool of this so-called deep state, despite the narratives explained above.  It would all seem somewhat unlikely based on that whole police raid thing alone…

If my suspicions about Jeff’s narratives are correct, it is clear he is a great hire for that publication given their standards of integrity and journalistic ethics.

2 Replies to “Spy Talk : Newsweek’s Jeff Stein”

  1. Thanks for the mention. Small point: the victim in the Green Beret murder case which I devoted a book to, Thai Khac Chuyen, was not “a North Vietnamese intelligence officer.” His executioners suspected him of being a communist double agent, but failed to crack him over a week’s worth of brutal interrogation, including with so-called truth serums, and they never found any corroborating evidence for their suspicion.
    On another point, I never wrote that I believed Snowden to be a Chinese agent. You can look it up.–Jeff Stein

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