How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 1: Propaganda and Puppets

Before launching an information assault, build out a network of agents and scapegoats that will allow your own government to maintain “plausible deniability.”

How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 1: Propaganda and Puppets

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Stage 1 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

The first order of business for any covert information operation is to staff up in a way that keeps the mastermind at maximum arm’s length from any dirty work. So once the Dulles brothers decided they were going to use psychological warfare to overthrow President Árbenz, they needed to figure out who exactly would do what — and how to keep the words “United States of America” out of it.

This was relatively novel at the time — and also exciting. A brand-new agency called the Psychological Strategy Board was now part of the National Security Council, and the CIA under Dulles and Eisenhower was starting to flex muscles it hadn’t yet tried to use.

At the CIA’s inception in 1947, President Truman had envisioned its job as collecting information, so that presidents could make better decisions. But, as Truman lamented years later in a Washington Post op-ed, the agency became an operational arm of government. “I had never thought that when I set up the CIA it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations,” Truman wrote.

And yet, the year Truman left office, his successor, President Eisenhower, allowed the Dulles brothers to begin using the CIA to conduct paramilitary operations abroad while maintaining the nation’s PR-friendly image of law and order.

During a time of peace, any aggressive action against another nation had to look like it came from someone other than the United States government. The cardinal principle of the CIA, therefore, became “plausible deniability.” This was of primary importance when staffing up PBSuccess:

U.S. State Department officials discuss plausible deniability regarding Operation PBSuccess at a weekly meeting, according to an official memorandum.

The CIA planners agreed that the easiest way to overthrow Árbenz would be to convince the Guatemalan people to rise up against him. To do that, Operation PBSuccess would use what the CIA and the U.S. Psychological Strategy Board called “black propaganda” — which it described helpfully in an internal document titled “Principles to Ensure Coordination of Gray Activities” as content that is “partially or completely fabricated, but that which is fabricated is made to appear credible to the target audience.” (Propaganda during peacetime had been authorized by the U.S. Security Council as a function of the State Department, in order to keep it at arm’s length from President Eisenhower.)

And in the event that the campaign didn’t convince Guatemalans to rise up themselves, black propaganda would provide a pretext for CIA operatives to pretend to be those Guatemalan rebels. But — since the U.S. was not at war with Guatemala, and helping depose a democratically elected leader would be both illegal and look supremely shitty — this would mean staffing up with outsiders to abstract the CIA away from the dirty work.

In a modern media manipulation campaign, fake news expert Craig Silverman, a respected media editor for BuzzFeed News and author of Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content, calls this step “building out the network.” The social media equivalent of deploying businessmen and retired soldiers to mingle with and recruit Guatemalan locals as unwitting CIA minions is creating fake profiles on social networks.

“What you want to think about is, how do you blend in and create the appearance that you’re an authentic actor?” Silverman explained in a phone interview when we asked him to break down the hypothetical stages of a successful modern fake news campaign — say, to overthrow the president of a small country.

“You create your inauthentic network of accounts,” Silverman said, so that the propaganda messages appear to come from within the “target public’s” communities. This keeps them from getting suspicious. Even more authentic-looking, Silverman added, is to “buy some aged social media accounts” from real people who’ve been operating them for years.

In Guatemala, this took the form of buying a preexisting enemy of the Árbenz regime to serve as the head of the supposed “rebel” movement.

Thirty-six-year-old CIA field agent E. Howard Hunt — who would decades later go to prison for his role in masterminding the Watergate break-in — scouted several candidates, including former military leaders and a man who’d lost the election against Árbenz.

Eventually, the agency settled on the perfect candidate, a legendary colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas.

CIA field operative and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt, who would later be convicted of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. (Photo from his autobiography “American Spy”)



In 1949, Carlos Castillo Armas sat in his jail cell in Guatemala City, his well-toned chest and arm muscles visibly rippling from constant push-ups and chin-ups. Or so the prison guards thought.  

Actually, for the entire month since his capture after attempting to take over a military barracks and overthrow Guatemalan President Juan José Arévalo, the mustachioed colonel had been hand-digging a secret tunnel underneath the prison.

It would be back-breaking work for a regular man, but not for a killing machine like Castillo Armas.

Finally, one night, after the prison guards had made their rounds, the colonel threw aside his mattress and wriggled his massive, muscular body through the tunnel and popped up outside the prison gates. By the time the sirens began shrieking, he’d sprinted so many kilometers that he barely heard them.

Actually, that’s not what happened at all. But it’s what CIA planners told their agents.

Castillo Armas was neither a beefy escape artist nor particularly intelligent. Rather, he was a scrawny, egotistical shit-talker. It appeared that he’d actually been bribed out of jail by friends and driven in a car to Honduras, where he’d been hiding ever since.

Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, with gun tucked into his belt, talking to his men during the Guatemalan Revolution. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The CIA settled on him among Hunt’s proposed options because they thought Castillo Armas would be easy to manipulate. They paid him a $30,000 retainer, gave him the CIA code name “RUFUS” and a pseudonym, “John H. Calligeris,” and promised him the Guatemalan presidency if he played the part.

Thus the CIA bought the first authentic-looking part of its network.

Hunt and his co-agents also hired local Guatemalans as informants, graffiti artists and rumor-spreaders — though without disclosing that it was the U.S. government footing the bill. Eventually, the CIA even turned Guatemala’s small Communist Party’s number three activist, Carlos Manuel Pellecer, into a paid agent as well. Operating under the code name “LINLUCK,” Pellecer pretended to be Árbenz’s ally while filing secret reports on him.

In the research for his 2019 book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, British journalist Peter Pomerantsev discovered a Russian manual called Information-Psychological War Operations: A Short Encyclopedia and Reference Guide, which is described as a user’s guide for “state security services and civil servants.” The manual suggests that the deployment of information weapons “acts like an invisible radiation. … The population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So the state doesn’t switch on its defense mechanisms.”

The invisible radiation analogy is apt — and exactly what Stage 1 of the Guatemala playbook was about. It’s why, Pomerantsev explains in his book, Russia deploys social media surrogates to create and promote narratives that the Kremlin wants people to believe. If enough people are saying it, it doesn’t feel like the dictator is behind it. Running information warfare through a “network” that’s abstracted away from the mastermind is how Russia manipulated the American press and public in the 2016 election into talking about what Putin wanted — without them even knowing it. Research by scholars like University of Wisconsin professor Young Mie Kim reveals that during the 2016 election, the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency created thousands of disguised social media accounts and over a hundred fake organizations and groups across Facebook, YouTube, Meetup, Twitter and independent websites, and ran thousands of ad and messaging campaigns from them — all of which was meant to look like it came from legitimate American nonprofits and groups of U.S. citizens.

“First, you would want to disguise your identity and your intent,” Dr. Kathleen Jamieson, a nonpartisan media data expert from UPenn, who rigorously calculated the impact of news manipulation during 2016, explained when we asked her what the first step in a modern disinformation campaign would likely be. “You would want to make it more difficult to pin the blame on you.”

This is precisely what Special Counsel Robert Mueller found in his official investigation of 2016 — that the Kremlin used surrogates to build out its “network” for its interference campaign long before election season, both on social media and with in-person contacts.

Rather than doing any dirty work directly, ideally, people within the Trump campaign could be influenced to take actions that Russia wanted. But Putin didn’t phone up candidate Trump. He had a friend of a friend of a friend schedule a meeting with Trump’s son — about “adoptions.” And the hackers who compromised the Clinton campaign’s emails weren’t Russian government either. The Special Counsel investigation found that they were a cyber-espionage group called Fancy Bear — in the pay of the Russian government. And the publisher of the embarrassing documents? Not Russia; not even the hackers. It was a party even further abstracted from Putin: Julian Assange of Wikileaks. Plausible deniability.

And because of the way Wikileaks simply (and selectively) released the information, it wasn’t even Assange who told the American public the talking points Putin wanted Americans to hear. The final piece of the “network” was America’s own news media.

“For practical purposes,” Dr. Jamieson told us, “the credibility of our major news outlets and some of our most respected reporters was used in service of Russian ends, inadvertently.”



In early 1954, a Texan actor and playwright named David Atlee Phillips was working as an editor at a small newspaper in Chile, when the CIA called him up and offered him a new gig.

A tall, charismatic man who fancied himself something of a spy-from-the-movies type (the first James Bond film had come out in 1953), Phillips had worked for the CIA in Chile for a few years, where his newspaper job gave him a plausible reason to talk to people the CIA wanted him to talk to. Based on his early CIA missions — and a stint in a Chilean movie in which Phillips described himself as a “devil-may-care gringo who makes violent love to three passionate sisters one after another, uno, dos, tres” — he’d started trying to write sexy spy novels.

David Atlee Phillips as a young soldier. (Courtesy the Library of Congress.)

Now the agency wanted him to fly to Florida and make use of his writing skills for them.

Operation PBSuccess had set up headquarters in Opa-Locka, Florida, about 14 miles northwest of Miami Beach. There, Phillips was briefed on the overthrow mission by CIA Assistant Deputy Director of Plans Tracy Barnes (whose name gets misspelled in the CIA’s official history as “Tracey”) and E. Howard Hunt, who’d helped recruit Castillo Armas and would be coordinating among the propaganda network.

In his memoir, The Night Watch, Phillips claimed that Barnes told him, “Jacobo Árbenz is responding more and more to overtures from Moscow,” and “it’s unacceptable to have a Commie running Guatemala.” Already, Phillips was being compartmentalized from the truth.

Tracy Barnes, Central Intelligence Agency Assistant Deputy Director of Plans and Operation and PBSUCCESS conspirator. (Photo courtesy the Central Intelligence Agency)

“I’m still not sure that gives us the right to intervene,” Phillips claimed he said.

“Our marching orders on this operation come from President Eisenhower,” Barnes replied, according to Phillips. Barnes then told him the story about how Castillo Armas “tunneled out of prison,” which impressed Phillips. (The CIA knew that the tunneling story was fiction, yet briefed their agents with it anyway. Currently, the Wikipedia entry for Castillo Armas still mentions the tunnel story.)

Barnes continued explaining that Castillo Armas was amassing an army — and the CIA’s job was simply “to assist the Guatemalans who are opposed to Árbenz.” It wasn’t a U.S. overthrow. It was assistance for a freedom fighter.

Satisfied, Phillips agreed to oversee the writing for the propaganda radio station that would support the rebels. Barnes then left for Washington, and Phillips and Hunt drank rum cocktails and bonded over their shared love of writing spy novels.

Phillips’s memoir is hardly a trustworthy source of information. Like his boss, Hunt, Phillips was a notorious self-promoter. (PBSuccess historians Stephen Schlesinger and Piero Gleijeses each interviewed Phillips before his death, and both told us that they remembered him as a self-aggrandizer who loved playing spy games — an impression that’s reinforced by Phillips’s personal papers left behind after his death.)

Documents do confirm, though, that Phillips was indeed tasked with running Radio Liberación, after the CIA had decided that it would be a bad idea to let Castillo Armas be in charge of it. Phillips’s code name would be “LANGEVIN” — and he’d be managing a team of Guatemalan exiles who the CIA had hired as the radio crew. The two head DJs were named Mario López Villatoro and Jose “Pepe” Toron Barrios. Another unnamed Guatemalan man would help them operate the station.

Mario López Villatoro and José “Pepe” Torón Barrios, the two head DJs for Radio Liberación. (Photo courtesy of The Center for Mesoamerican Research/Fototeca Guatemala at CIRMA)

After a few drunken evenings at Miami nightclubs with his new team (according to Phillips), the actor arrived at headquarters in Opa-Locka to start his new job. At HQ, he saw just how sprawling the operation was: a diagram of all the players took up an entire wall of the office.

We don’t have photos of the wall — Cullather told us that the CIA burned all of the documents housed at the Opa-Locka facility — but from the 2003 declassified documents, we’ve pieced together a map of the network that was on it.

A chart showing all the connections and conflicts of interests between U.S. government officials and the United Fruit Company that were uncovered by the authors while researching this story.

With all this in place, the next stage, however, was not to jump straight to broadcasting fake news. First, some important seeds would need to be planted.