Killing of the messenger


THE POLK CONSPIRACY. By Kati Marton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 369 pages. $22.95

THE PERSIAN GULF War has generated a familiar uproar over the role of the press in such adventures. The debate is not new. It has existed in modern form at least since Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman said he hated Northern journalists more than the Southern enemy, suggesting they ought to be tried as spies.

In ancient times, rulers resorted to a simpler device. They executed the bearers of news that displeased them. Kati Marton' book, "The Polk Conspiracy," shows that the device was still being employed in the mid-20th century. It is the story of the assassination of George Polk in 1948 while he was covering the Greek civil war for CBS.

Equally important, it is the story of how the murder investigation turned into a cover-up. The book ought to be read by anyone who is curious about government's capacity to resist and confuse the truth -- to murder, if necessary -- in order to fulfill its agenda.

The Polk story is also a timely reminder that the role of journalists is not simply to repeat what's said at briefings in Washington and foreign capitals designed to support a point of view or press an agenda. The task is to get at the truth even if the reporting takes the public to places it doesn't want to go. That sort of reporting will become even more important in the gulf as questions arise over the human cost of the allies' victory.

Polk was murdered for asking just such questions. And although Marton's story strays into some fanciful reconstructions at times, that does not diminish the thoroughness of her research, the quality of her evidence and the genuine, awful conclusion she proves.

Polk was was covering the civil war in Greece at a time when that place was being held up as the battle ground where democracy's survival would be decided. The United States was heavily involved on behalf of the Royalist government against communist rebels. Polk reported both sides of the story. In the process he disclosed that the U.S.-supported regime in Athens was hardly using American aid to nurture democracy as the Truman Doctrine had anticipated. Instead, much of the money was going to suppress freedom through a brutal military and police force. Polk also reported that goods delivered to Greece under the U.S. program were being used by the regime for profiteering in the black market. In one important case, he discovered -- to his ultimate peril -- that a senior Greek official was simply stashing money in an illegal U.S. bank account.

The Greeks in Athens and their supporters in Washington and at the U.S. mission in Greece branded Polk untrustworthy at best, a communist sympathizer at worst. Sound familiar?

In 1948, at the age of 34, Polk was wrapping up his assignment in Greece. But before leaving Athens he made a fatal error. He confronted Constantine Tsaldaris, Greek foreign minister and head of the Royalist Party in Greece, with evidence that Tsaldaris had deposited $25,000 -- a fortune in those days -- in a private account at the Chase Bank in New York. Aside from the inference that the money might have come from U.S. taxpayers, the fact was that Greece was in such bad shape then that it was illegal to send currency outside the country. The foreign minister was thus violating his own country's laws.

Tsaldaris was furious. Polk lost his temper during the confrontation and vowed to expose the Greek in Washington. The information would have been devastating to Tsaldaris personally and to the Greek regime generally. It might have been enough to interrupt if not stop the entire aid program to Greece.

Weeks later, Polk's body was discovered floating in Salonika Bay. His hands were bound. There were two bullet holes in the back of his head.

The Athens regime immediately accused the communists. Washington was horrified and launched its own investigation, bringing out of retirement Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan, the founder of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the CIA, to head the investigation. A committee of eminent journalists, headed by Walter Lippmann, was formed to look into the murder. Another committee -- not so eminent -- the Newsmen's Commission to Investigate the Murder of George Polk -- was formed in New York, but that committee, consisting of relatives and former colleagues, of Polk was shut out.

"The Polk Conspiracy" is a thoroughly documented, dramatic and frightening account of the paranoia, duplicity and corruption that led to Polk's murder and the subsequent cover-up of those really responsible.

A Greek journalist, Gregory Staktopolous, eventually was beaten into a confession of a phony story that he and a couple of local communists had carried out the murder under instructions from communist guerrilla headquarters. Staktopolous was sent to prison after a trial that drew international attention. Donovan pronounced himself satisfied. So -- to his everlasting disgrace -- did Walter Lippmann, even though he had evidence that the Staktopolous confession was bogus. The State Department was happy to close the book on the affair. The aid program went on. The Greek civil war -- an opening chapter in the Cold War that was to dominate world events for the rest of the century -- reached its inconclusive end. Tsaldaris' son, Athanasios, is president of the Greek parliament today.

Years later, Staktopolous was released and recanted his confession. But no one outside of Greece paid much attention. Those who are disturbed by the brutal tendencies of Iraq's Saddam Hussein should read the account in Marton's book of the torture to which Staktopolous was subjected to obtain the false confession that closed the embarrassing episode.

The torturers themselves were the culprits, Marton's book reveals. But there are brutes and there are brutes. These brutes were our brutes. Their vile behavior was overlooked by the U.S. government for the sake of a larger objective, to save the world from communism. Donovan and Lippmann understood these awkward global necessities in the Polk affair, as did the establishment they represented.

At the beginning of her book, Marton quotes Howard K. Smith, a CBS contemporary of Polk's, a month after the Polk murder:

"It cheapens the life of the truth. All reporters everywhere are vitally concerned in finding the answer to the death of George Polk. The survival of truth and the free flow of news are at stake."

Smith might have been flabbergasted at the time to learn of his own government's eagerness to go along with the Greek government's cover-up. As for "truth and the free flow of news," his spoon-fed colleagues in Washington and Saudi Arabia might observe that the flow carries less than the whole truth. So, even BTC after a cease-fire, does the flow from Baghdad. But don't blame the journalists. It's the people holding the spoons we ought to be worried about. George Polk was killed because he bothered one too many of them.

G.J. Price, a former Middle East correspondent for The Sun, is now the newspaper's state editor. George Polk was his cousin.

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