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Was W.Va.'s Frank Kearns a CIA agent?

Morgantown native Frank Kearns was an award-winning journalist, a globe-trotting foreign correspondent, a WVU professor. . . and perhaps a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency.

An hour-long documentary about him, "Frank Kearns: American Correspondent," seeks to unravel the tangled story of whether he served a dual role while working for CBS News in the 1950's and 60's.

Producers Jake Davis and Chip Hitchcock, who befriended Kearns while they were journalism students at WVU, include plenty of material to support the allegations that Kearns was a spy, but they also present plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The CIA won't say one way or another and Kearns denied until his death in 1986 that he worked for the agency.

Kearns had a background in the spy game, having served in the counterintelligence corps in Europe during WWII.

Later, while working as a stringer in Cairo for CBS, Kearns formed close friendships with CIA operatives stationed there.

British control of Egypt ended with a revolution that put Gamal Nassar in power. The Cold War was heating up and the United States was worried that the Soviet Union would curry favor with Nassar and use Egypt as a strategic ally for the spread of communism.

Kearns, like many American patriots of the day, was a virulent anti-communist. In one news report he filed from Egypt, Kearns said, "I'm depressed and tired of seeing the Soviets win almost every battle."

Kearns was in a position to help the CIA. He traveled extensively in Africa and had hundreds of contacts. It's easy to conclude he willingly exchanged information with the CIA.

But was he actually on the payroll - and if so, for how long?

Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein has reported that as many as 400 American journalists carried out assignments for the CIA in the 50's and 60's. According to Bernstein, CBS, the New York Times and Time Inc. had the closest relationships with the CIA.

In 1976, a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the CIA probed the alliance between the press and the agency. Bernstein believes the CIA persuaded the committee to downplay the extent of the cooperation.

But out of that investigation came a news report - ironically by CBS - that identified Kearns as a journalist who had worked simultaneously for the CIA.

Kearns was shaken by the story, and he forcefully denied it. The Senate Committee turned up widespread abuses by the CIA, including planned assassinations of foreign leaders and covert attempts to subvert governments.

Kearns believed linking him to the CIA sullied his stellar reputation.

The documentary, as well as other media reports, shows that long-time CBS President William Paley had a close personal and working relationship with former CIA head Allen Dulles, and his network helped provide cover for CIA spies.

Yet it was Kearns who, after risking his life more than 100 times while covering stories for the network, was the reporter thrown under the bus. (The other was Austin Goodrich, who readily admitted he worked as a reporter and as a spy.)

The documentary is a fascinating story of an exhilarating and complicated life.

Davis and Hitchcock tell us how Kearns journeyed to the world's most dangerous places and put himself in harm's way in search of the truth.

But as hard as the documentary tries, the ultimate truth about Frank Kearns remains a mystery.

(Frank Kearns: American Correspondent was broadcast Monday, Oct. 15 on WV PBS, and will be rebroadcast at 9 p.m. Friday.)

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.


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