Volume 65, No. 2 (June 2021)

Stranger than Fiction John Franklin Carter’s Career as FDR’s Private Intelligence Operative by Steve Usdin

In the real world and the popular imagination, spies, journalists, and the authors of espionage fiction are intimately linked. From Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming to E. Howard Hunt, Milt Bearden, and Valerie Plame, there is a rich tradition of intelligence officers and former officers writing fictional accounts of espionage. The use of journalism as a cover for covert intelligence col­lection dates back at least to Daniel Defoe in the 18th century and in the 20th century was practiced with exu­berance by Soviet intelligence agen­cies and intermittently by authors of spy stories such as Graham Greene and James Forsyth. Since 1976, the CIA has had a policy in place that prohibits its use of journalists accred­ited to US news organizations or their parent organizations for intelligence purposes.

It is unlikely, however, that any­one has fused—and confused—the work of spies, journalists, and nov­elists as thoroughly as John Franklin Carter, a journalist who ran a secret, off-the-books intelligence operation for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Carter may be the only writer who first created a fictional intelligence agency and then persuaded a gov­ernment to put him in charge of a real organization modeled on it. Carter used journalism as a cover for intelligence operations, and as soon as his covert career was terminated, wrote a fictional account of some of his exploits.

Carter’s espionage career further blurred the lines between espionage, journalism, and creative writing because the reports he provided to Roosevelt contained an undifferen­tiated mix of fact and fiction. While some of the intelligence Carter and his organization obtained was accurate, and a smaller portion was consequential, much of the informa­tion Carter personally delivered to the president was so farcical that it would have been more appropriate to submit it to the humor magazine he had edited as an undergraduate at Yale.

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