I was coach or player on some two hundred documentaries. I faced polite competition within CBS News, particularly from the newsmen who reported on a daily or weekly basis. They called themselves “hard news” and because documentaries took more time, the phallic overtone was obvious.
In those early days, there was a common problem for all electronic journalists, hard or soft. The question was whether the First Amendment protected television news as it did print news. Unlike newspapers or magazines, where anyone rich enough to buy a printing press could publish anything he wanted, the right to broadcast in assigned frequencies had been given by the Federal Government. The government could take back its gift – or in some ways restrain what was said on the electronic highways.
The simplest answer would be to get a decision from the Supreme Court, but Frank Stanton refused to force the issue. He was afraid that the conservative court would rule against TV News. There had to be another way to go.
In the meantime, we were instructed to answer subpoenas and turn over notes and outtakes. I received such a subpoena. The language was hostile and nasty. One James Kelly, a Federal Marshall was commanded to summon me to a sub-committee hearing headed by a southern aristocrat, Harley Staggers. Staggers was highly critical of the press, including television. In turn, for liquidity reasons, some of my colleagues called Chairman Staggers, “Blind Staggers”.
I spent four days before his committee while it investigated a documentary which never aired, Project Nassau. What we did not know at the time was that the FBI, the CIA and the Coast Guard had infiltrated Project Nassau.
The writer-producer, Jay McMullen, followed a group of Haitians who planned to overthrow the government in Port au Prince. The rebels purchased guns from an arms dealer in Atlanta. They planned to bring the weapons to Florida, stow them in a boat, and take off for the Dominican Republic from which they would strike Haiti. Project Nassau would follow the insurgents.
Jay and I were watching some rushes when the face of arms salesman appeared. Coincidentally another producer, Igor Oganesoff, was in the room and saw the face. He said, “That’s Earl Warbell. He went through CIA school with me, and he is still with the agency.”
We were startled. We did not know that Warbell was anything but a gun salesman. Nor did we know the FBI had also penetrated our operation. At the time carrying, automatic weapons from Atlanta to Florida was a federal offense. When the Haitian insurgents crossed state lines, the lead cameraman called the FBI. We knew nothing about the phone calls.
The United States government was at odds with itself. The CIA wanted the rebels to overthrow the Haitian government. But if the invaders came from a Florida port, the Coast Guard would be disgraced. Part of the Coast Guard’s mission was to stop the illegal flow of arms from Florida. It was impossible for their small fleet to intercept the thousands of boats in Florida’s waters. In any case there were only twelve insurgents in an auxiliary powered sailboat.
Yet if rebels succeeded in overthrowing Papa Doc, news coverage would follow and the Coast Guard might get unfavorable press for letting the sailboat slip through. The FBI had tipped off the Coast Guard who seized the boat, arrested the conspirators, got favorable coverage and ruined the CIA’s mission.
In the middle of the mess McMullen found the cameraman had faked some footage, and the whole project was called off. CBS had invested more than $100,000 in salaries and logistics. The footage was stored.
Two years later, the House of Representatives sent a subpoena demanding our notes and the outtakes. I oversaw the packing of the film, the outtakes, and the negatives. They were put in large cardboard boxes tied securely with large copper wires. Notices were placed on the cartons: HANDLE WITH CARE & NEGATIVE FILM ENCLOSED.
I received a nastily-worded subpoena from a subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee. I was called as a hostile witness, as was McMullen. Since we were hostiles, an attorney could accompany us, but he could only be consulted if we felt our Constitutional rights were being violated.
The low point for me came from a question put by a congressman: “Mr. Wolff, you say Earl Warbell was a CIA agent?”
“Yes, we had positive identification from one of our correspondents that the two of them were in the same training classes at the CIA.”
Congressman Moss indignantly replied, “This man is not a member of the CIA, nor has he ever been. I know because I personally called the CIA and they denied he had ever been in the agency. I personally called them!”
I started to ask, “Do you think the CIA would identify one of its agents?” when the CBS lawyer nudged me violently.
Moss said, “Please don’t turn to your attorney unless you think your civil rights are being violated. “
The House Committee recommended CBS be sanctioned by the FCC, but the oversight agency refused the recommendation.
The boxes came back exactly wrapped as we had sent them. It would have taken hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to examine the outtakes. Some rolls were so tiny that they probably could not have been spliced together. Bits of films are a lot different than reporters’ written notes.
Later, the scope of the First Amendment was tested by the war in Vietnam and by The Selling of the Pentagon, another documentary I coached.
Jay McMullen, writer and producer of Project Nassau, cbsnews.com, Vet investigative reporter Jay McMullen dies, March 10, 2012.