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NY Times, Oct. 10, 2018
David Wise, Journalist Who Exposed C.I.A. Activity, Dies at 88
By Katharine Q. Seelye
David Wise, one of the first journalists to expose the clandestine
operations of the Central Intelligence Agency and a standard-setter for
investigative reporting into government espionage, died on Monday in
Washington. He was 88.
The death, at Georgetown University Medical Center, was confirmed by his
wife, Joan Wise, who said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Mr. Wise was the author, with Thomas B. Ross, of “The Invisible
Government,” an explosive 1964 exposé of the C.I.A. and its covert
operations. To keep its contents from the public, the C.I.A. considered
buying up all copies of the book but backed off when the publisher,
Random House, made clear that it would simply print more.
Mr. Wise began his journalism career in the late 1940s as a campus
stringer for The New York Herald Tribune while studying at Columbia
College. In his senior year he was editor of the campus newspaper, The
Spectator, alongside another aspiring journalist, Max Frankel, who in
1986 became executive editor of The New York Times.
Mr. Frankel said on Tuesday that Mr. Wise seemed born to write about
espionage: He always kept information — even what he had for lunch —
close to the vest.
Mr. Wise joined the Herald Tribune’s staff in 1951 and later moved to
Washington, where he covered politics and the Kennedy White House. He
was named Washington bureau chief in 1963 and served in that role until
the paper closed in 1966.
At that point he devoted himself full time to writing books. Over the
next half century, he wrote a trove of nonfiction works that include the
stories of America’s most notorious spies — Aldrich Ames and Robert
Hanssen among them. In the telling he revealed details of the
government’s bungling and deceptions.
He also wrote three spy novels, which were praised for their insight and
Methodical and persistent, Mr. Wise would check, double check and triple
check his work, his wife said. He cultivated his sources over periods of
“Even people he criticized would still come back and talk to him because
they knew they would get a fair shake and they trusted him,” she said.
His assiduous attention to detail gave his work authenticity.
“Not only does Wise tell where, in Langley and environs, C.I.A.
employees eat, drink and shop,” Jonathan Yardley wrote in The Washington
Post in reviewing Mr. Wise’s novel “The Children’s Game.” “He also
provides juicy details about such arcana as the ‘low-signature bullet,’
a ‘powerful transmitter’ in the shape of a ‘tiny black beetle, about
one-eighth of an inch long.”
He added, “Of such tidbits are the warp and woof of espionage thrillers
manufactured, and Wise supplies exactly the most satisfying amount of them.”
His nonfiction work began with “The U-2 Affair,” a 1962 collaboration
with Mr. Ross recounting the behind-the-scenes story of the Soviet
Union’s 1960 downing of an American spy plane piloted by Francis Gary
“While the Air Force was still clinging to the fiction that the
high-flying spy craft was a weather plane, the pair wangled their way
into a U-2 plane on Edwards Air Force Base in the remote California
desert,” their agent, Sterling Lord, wrote in a memoir, “Lord of
Publishing.” They received an up-close look at the plane and other details.
“They were admitted onto the base after expressing great interest in
research on cloud formations,” Mr. Lord added.
Mr. Wise and Mr. Ross followed that success with “The Invisible
Government.” It was a startling unmasking of C.I.A. involvement in the
Bay of Pigs and in coups in Guatemala and Iran. It also revealed the
agency’s covert operations in Laos and Vietnam and its attempts, with
British assistance, to overthrow President Sukarno in Indonesia, among
many other previously undisclosed activities.
The C.I.A. obtained an advance version of the book and fought
ferociously to censor it. After dropping the idea of buying up all the
copies, Mr. Lord said, the agency appointed a task force that
recommended that the C.I.A. use “such assets as the Agency may have” to
plant bad reviews.
The efforts came to naught. The book became the No. 1 best seller on the
Time magazine list and No. 2 on The New York Times list, behind Ernest
Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” It remained on the Times best-seller
list for 22 weeks and was published in eight foreign editions.
David Wise was born May 10, 1930, in Manhattan. His father, Raymond, was
a lawyer in private practice who also took on cases for the American
Civil Liberties Union. His mother, Karena (Postan) Wise, sang
professionally, including, in her early years, as a member of the
Metropolitan Opera chorus.
David showed an interest in journalism as early as 10 years old, when he
would cut out newspaper articles about World War II and paste them into
Mr. Wise grew up on the Upper West Side and attended the High School of
Music and Art, where he became editor of the school paper, Overtone.
Mr. Frankel, also a student there, said Mr. Wise was a mentor to him in
both high school and college. While they were at Columbia, a job as a
campus reporter — or stringer — for The Times came open and the two sat
down over hamburgers to game out their futures, Mr. Frankel recalled.
Mr. Wise, who was stringing for The Herald Tribune, considered jumping
to The Times, but concluded that young people there “were suppressed and
oppressed and took years to get a byline,” Mr. Frankel said.
“He figured the Trib guy would move ahead faster,” he said, so Mr. Wise
continued to string for The Herald Tribune and Mr. Frankel got the job
stringing for The Times.
Mr. Wise went to Washington in 1958. At the book party for “The U-2
Affair,” he met his future wife, Joan Sylvester, who became a lawyer.
She survives him, as do their son Jonathan; a brother, William; and
three grandchildren. Their older son, Christopher James, died in 2004.
Mr. Wise contributed to many magazines, including Vanity Fair, The New
York Times Magazine, Esquire, The New Republic and Smithsonian. He was
also an intelligence and national security commentator on CNN for six years.
All told, he wrote 15 books, including “The Politics of Lying:
Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power,” published in 1973. It was an
unvarnished analysis of government duplicity and won a George Polk Award.
Despite his illness, Mr. Wise spent the last year finishing his final
book, “The Seven Million Dollar Spy,” a nonfiction account of the
F.B.I.’s payment of $7 million to a Russian agent who enabled the bureau
to identify Mr. Hanssen as a mole. It is to be released this month as an
audiobook by Audible, his wife said.
“Just a few weeks ago, David was carefully writing out a pronunciation
guide with all the Russian names for the reader,” Ms. Wise said. “He was
always very careful, down to that level of detail. His was a good brand.
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