The CIA Tactic to Oust Unfriendly Foreign Leaders Is Now Being Used Against Americans
Once again, fake news is being weaponized to undermine our elections
About 66 years ago, the United States ousted the democratically elected president of Guatemala, the popular reformer and FDR fan, Jacobo Árbenz. That story is well-known by now. But over the past year, my research team and I investigated a more obscured aspect of that coup that has taken on surprising relevance today: The primary weapon the U.S. used to overthrow Guatemala’s democracy was fake news. A key part of why the plot worked tells us something important about what Americans need to watch out for as the Russian government tries to interfere with our democracy in 2020.
To get rid of Árbenz in 1954, CIA agents and U.S. State Department officials created a hoax radio station in the style of Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds. CIA director Allen Dulles, in a now-declassified memo to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, explained the plan. “The entire effort,” Dulles wrote, was “more dependent upon psychological impact rather than actual military strength.”
Pretending to be Guatemalan patriots, the Americans aired false news reports and what they called “terror broadcasts” for months. At first, the CIA radio station broadcast music and political commentary for a couple hours each day, including false reports of a brewing rebel movement and defections of high-ranking officials who were upset that the Árbenz government was secretly operating under Soviet control. (None of this was true.) Over time, the station upped the fear factor and urgency, until it was eventually broadcasting all day long and reporting civil rights abuses by the government — and claiming that Árbenz was actively trying to find the station and crush the ever-growing rebel army.
If we stop caring as individuals, we’re giving up our collective power.
Local papers and social networks (the offline kind) repeated this “news” — which escalated to the point that it convinced Guatemalans that a bloody civil war had erupted. The campaign culminated in the public, military, and presidential cabinet giving up and letting the U.S. walk a puppet president into their…