"A Murder and Its Meaning"

by Elias Vlanton
from The Nation, January 28, 1991 pp. 93-95

THE POLK CONSPIRACY: Murder and Cover-up in the Case of CBS News Correspondent George Polk. By Kati Marton. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 369 pp. $22.93.

By the middle of 1947, American intervention in the Greek civil war between Communist-led guerrillas and the American-backed rightist regime had made Greece a coveted dateline for ambitious journalists. In July, George Polk, a young, irreverent and respected foreign reporter, moved his base of operations to Athens. Unwilling just to rewrite Greek government handouts, the CBS correspondent began voraciously gathering information about the people and politics of Greece. Over time his dispatches--always well reasoned and well researched--began questioning the honesty and competency of the Greek government, and of the American aid program propping it up.

On May 16, 1948, a few days before he was to return to the United States, a boatman pulled Polk's body out of the Bay of Salonika; his hands and feet were bound and he had been shot once in the back of the head. Within hours Greek authorities announced to the press that Polk had been killed by Communist guerrillas while on his way to meet their leader, General Markos--an assessment foreign-policy officials and the press largely accepted, even defended, throughout the case.

Efforts by members of the New York Newspaper Guild to send an independent team of journalists to Greece to investigate their colleague's death were quickly pre-empted by a committee of prestigious media representatives, headed by Washington columnist Walter Lippmann. The Lippmann Committee refused to back an independent inquiry, electing instead to work with the State Department in monitoring the Greek government's investigation. Lippmann appointed General William (Wild Bill) Donovan, the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services, as the committee's counsel.

When, a month after Polk's death, Greek officials had made no progress toward identifying his killers, Donovan dispatched a young Greek-American intelligence operative, Lieut. Col. James Kellis, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the murder. In the course of his inquiry, Kellis discovered that Polk had received information that Greek Foreign Minister Constantine Tsaldaris had deposited $25,000 in a New York bank, money Polk may have suspected came out of U.S. aid funds. Shortly before his death the CBS correspondent had confronted Tsaldaris and threatened to destroy him and his government. In late July, as Kellis gathered indications that the rightists, not the Communists, were responsible for Polk's murder, the State Department had him recalled from Greece.

A few days later Donovan dramatically stepped up the pressure on Greek authorities to make an arrest. By August 14 the police had picked up journalist Gregory Staktopoulos; over the next six weeks the security police systematically tortured Staktopoulos until he agreed to "confess" to his role in helping the Communists to set up Polk. At a show trial the following April, Staktopoulos announced that the crime had been committed by two high-ranking Greek Communists acting on orders from the Kremlin. Staktopoulos was sentenced to life imprisonment as an accomplice. With a few notable exceptions, among them I.F. Stone, as well as Constantine Poulos writing in this magazine (May 28, 1949), the American press and government praised the verdict. The case was closed and largely forgotten for the next four decades.

Now Kati Marton has written a thrilling account of Polk's murder and of the cover-up by the American press and foreign-policy establishment. Her story is fast-paced, compellingly written and entirely engaging, and many will finish it convinced that American journalism has finally gotten its man. Marton rightly condemns American government officials for having been more concerned with protecting their investment in the Greek government than in finding Polk's killers. She also properly raps Walter Lippmann for his gullibility in having accepted, virtually without question, information supplied by American officials and General Donovan. But by singling out Donovan and Lippmann as the chief villains in the press cover-up of the murder, Marton misses a larger point.

It wasn't Walter Lippmann alone who failed George Polk and Gregory Staktopoulos; it was American journalism. Although a central figure in the case, Lippmann was hardly the only journalist to accept blindly that the Communists killed Polk, while ignoring evidence that suggested right-wing involvement. He has to share that responsibility with most of his fellows, including Edward R. Murrow and other top journalists at CBS, the major dailies such as The New York Times and New York Herald Tribune, and other American reporters then covering Greece. The only dissenters were a handful of members of the New York Newspaper Guild.

This was not a gigantic conspiracy, but journalism-as-usual. It was reporters writing about countries whose language, customs and politics they were unfamiliar with and accepting the word of official sources--American and Greek--without doing the necessary legwork to confirm the information. Worse, there was a failure to apply basic standards of logic and fairness, whether to a murder confession riddled with inconsistencies or to a trial that mocked the notions of justice and the rule of law.

Unfortunately, Kati Marton, too, practices journalism-as-usual. Marton suggests that Foreign Minister Tsaldaris ordered the assassination of Polk to prevent the reporter from carrying out his threat to bring down Tsaldaris and his government. She names Michael Kourtessis as the man who planned and carried out the murder. Kourtessis, she says, was part of a secret paramilitary organization within the port authority of Piraeus (OLP), to which Tsaldaris had close ties. Marton bases her claim on a series of letters written to Colonel Kellis by one of the Greek informants he used during his investigation into Polk's death.

Marton did not get these documents from Kellis, now deceased, but from sources she does not disclose, "for I have assured them anonymity." Her grant of anonymity to her sources raises several relevant questions: Who needs anonymity in providing forty-two-year-old documents? Did the documents come from the C.I.A., where Kellis served in the early 1950s? If so, why were they given to Marton? Did she receive all the reports in Kellis's possession, or were they leaked selectively to lead the author's inquiries down a particular path?

Also, if the documents sent to Colonel Kellis were so convincing, why did Kellis himself evidently dismiss them? In a 1977 deposition Kellis testified he did not know who killed Polk, and he went on to suggest that a British information officer was involved. (That testimony is mentioned in The Polk Conspiracy, but Marton doesn't mention that it contradicts the thesis of the book.)

Had Marton independently confirmed the story told by Kellis's informant, and/or produced Michael Kourtessis, she would have made a valuable contribution to efforts to clear up the mystery surrounding Polk's death. But the evidence she has "uncovered" appears to be little more than forty-year-old hearsay--the kind of raw intelligence that informers routinely supplied to Kellis and other American officials, information that was often disproved, contradicted or replaced by new information a few days later and hearsay is a far cry from hard evidence. Not only does Marton fail to prove that Kourtessis was a right-wing thug working for the OLP, she does not even prove that anyone named Michael Kourtessis ever existed.

In her analysis of the crime, Marton willingly sacrifices accuracy for drama. For example, The Polk Conspiracy claims that Kourtessis flew to Salonika between May 4 and May 6, 1948, to plan the murder, yet Polk himself only decided to fly there on May 7. How is this possible? Saturday night, May 8, Marton says, Polk dined in a private home with a group of right-wing conspirators posing as Communists. Sometime during the meal they put a soporific into Polk's drink; after the meal, Marton says, they said good night to Polk, who returned to his hotel, the Astoria. But why let him leave alive? How could the killers be sure Polk would return to his hotel? Why not murder him during dinner, in the relative seclusion of a private home in Salonika, rather than risk killing him near the Astoria, which sits on one of Salonika's busiest intersections?

After following Polk up to his room, they stuffed the dazed journalist into a laundry basket, which the murderers wheeled out of the hotel and into an alley. The killers supposedly then shot Polk, dragged his body across a deserted Nikis Street to the edge of the quay and heaved him into the Bay of Salonika. No one familiar with Salonika or Greek habits will find this scenario convincing. Getting Polk's body from the Astoria Hotel to the bay required dragging it three long blocks in an area filled with outdoor cafes, restaurants and movie theaters. Why would the murderers have chanced such a display around midnight (Polk's watch stopped at 12:20, a fact Marton fails to mention), when the streets would have been full of Greeks taking a stroll after their typically late Saturday night dinner? Nor does Marton try to explain how a body dropped over the edge of the quay wound up miles out in the bay; given the action of the waves the body, if it had moved at all, would have been washed closer to the shore, not farther away from it.

In addition to her failure to reconstruct accurately the story of Polk's murder, Marton inflates as revelations her discoveries of facts others made long ago. She writes, for example, that a C.I.A. document on Polk "was declassified in 1988 by the C.I.A. as a result of a Freedom of Information suit by this author." In fact, the document had been released a decade earlier at the request of other journalists. Nor, as Marton implies, was she the first to bring to light the Polk-Tsaldaris fight, news of which appeared in left-wing American newspapers two months after Polk's death. And by 1949 the story of the Tsaldaris illegal bank deposit was known to the dissenting journalists based in the New York Newspaper Guild.

The Polk Conspiracy does not chronicle the efforts of John Donovan, a colleague of Polk's, who strove, largely without recognition, to uncover the truth about Polk's death from 1948 until his debilitating stroke in the 1980s. He traveled to Athens to talk with Gregory Staktopoulos after he was released from prison in 1960 (apparently the only American journalist to do so), and he doggedly pressed Kellis and others connected to the case for possible leads. Donovan unsuccessfully tried to interest every broadcast network, including CBS, and countless newspapers to cover new developments in the case, and he submitted his own articles about the case to magazines and newspapers nationwide. Ironically, many of the same publications that have heaped praise on The Polk Conspiracy, among them The New York Times and The Washington Post did not publish John Donovan's investigations ten and twenty years ago.

Nor does Marton's bibliography even list The Salonika Bay Murder (Princeton, 1989), by Edmund Keeley. Keeley's work, while not as intriguing or compellingly written as Marton's, remains a more reliable source about the murder, investigation and cover-up. Although Keeley fails to assign adequate blame to American officials for their role in the cover-up, his book is thoroughly footnoted and factually correct, whereas Marton's is very poorly referenced and replete with errors. For example, throughout the course of her book Marton manages to get almost every detail of Staktopoulos's life wrong, including what he did during the war, how he was arrested, when he was transferred from jail to prison, when he was freed, when his brother died, and that his sister went insane.

To its credit, The Polk Conspiracy has again drawn attention to how American journalists forty years ago sacrificed their integrity to solidify domestic support for the cold war. The uncritical praise The Polk Conspiracy has received, however, shows how American journalists today accept a terrific story and stylish prose in lieu of meticulous research and critical analysis. Either way, they are still not getting it right.


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/polk.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:59 EDT