Examples of newspaper front pages during World War II in an exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Photo by Marcin Wichary/Creative Commons

The true story of a Jewish news agency that peddled fake news to undo Hitler

(RNS) — When the Jewish Telegraphic Agency launched the Overseas News Agency in 1940, JTA’s new subsidiary promised to report the facts and to “indulge in no propaganda, preach no theory or philosophy.”

But before ONA was a year old, according to a new book, it had partnered with Britain's foreign intelligence agency to spread fake news aimed at discrediting Hitler and enlisting the United States' help with the war in Europe.

The news wire also reportedly tried in vain to work with the FBI and may have collaborated with the predecessor to the Russian spy agency, the KGB.

Image courtesy of Prometheus Books

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

From the start, said Steven Usdin, author of “Bureau of Spies: The Secret Connections Between Espionage and Journalism in Washington,” ONA made attacking Nazi Germany a priority over reporting the truth, aligning itself with the interests of British Security Coordination, the New York outpost of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA.

ONA's anti-Nazi propaganda work raises the question of whether fake news can ever be a good thing, said Usdin, who is the Washington, D.C., editor of BioCentury, which tracks life sciences policy and biotechnology.

“There are times where people say that it’s appropriate or OK to compromise with some kind of ethical principle because there’s an existential threat, but it’s usually not true,” he told Religion News Service. “Here, it really was. I would have done it, and I would have been proud of it.

“I think it’s extraordinary,” Usdin said. In declassified documents, MI6 doesn’t talk about just having influence over the wire service. “They basically say that they have effective control over ONA,” he said.

British intelligence used that control to plant lies that are the stuff of The Onion.

“Hitler’s paranoia has reached the point where he suffers from delusions,” read one "sib," the British spies' shorthand for the Latin sibilare, a whisper or hiss. “He has an uncontrollable fear that his mustache is growing more and more like Stalin’s, and he has it shaved every morning much closer than usual.”

The mustache rumor never made it into print, as far as Usdin has found, but mainstream media reported equally outlandish sibs, including an ONA tale that 200 man-eating, Australian sharks had been imported to the English Channel to dissuade German sailors and pilots from attempting to cross.

“That seems like something that someone thought of over a pint,” Usdin said. “They just threw a lot of mud, and whatever stuck on the wall, they were happy with,” Usdin said. “I think they also thought Americans were particularly gullible.”

On Nov. 2, 1941, The New York Times ran a front-page Associated Press story, based on ONA reporting, claiming that the British navy was using a superexplosive, 47 times as powerful as TNT.

The report read “as if the British government was in the habit of revealing military secrets to any reporter clever enough to ask the right questions,” Usdin writes.

The following day, the Times buried a small story stating that “more imaginative rumors” of highly secret British ammunition “should be taken with perhaps a little more than the proverbial grain of salt.”

Another planted story that ran in the Times held that a 130-year-old Bedouin soothsayer’s death was being taken in the Middle East as a sign of Hitler’s imminent downfall.

A.C. Corley, left, sells copies of the Panama City News-Herald with the headline "Allies Dig Deeper Into Nazi Defenses" to Moody Busby and Roger Keough circa 1942. The photo was used in the June 3, 1944, edition of the Tyndall Target. Photo courtesy of Tyndall Target/Creative Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Founded by Jacob Landau as the Jewish Correspondence Bureau in The Hague in 1917, the news agency moved four years later to New York. When the war broke out in Europe, according to a 1984 JTA story, The New York Times and other subscribers felt they couldn’t continue to use the JTA name, saying it was “too ‘parochial’ and implied biased news reporting.”

But within a year of ONA’s founding in 1941, 50 American and Canadian dailies carried its stories, the JTA added.

JTA’s website doesn’t detail any collaboration with spies, and Usdin said there's no evidence its reporters knew of ONA's deal with the British. MI6 declined to comment, instead referring RNS to official history of the war period the agency released a few years ago.

But, according to Usdin, the deal went as follows: British intelligence agreed to fund the JTA subsidiary in exchange for ONA press credentials for its spies and the right to use the outlet to spread fake stories in the U.S. and international press. Besides The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post and others ran its stories.

The Austrian-born founder, Landau, tried to pitch the FBI on a similar deal, but his accent got in the way. In an April 1942 memo, assistant director Percy E. Foxworth wrote to his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, of a meeting with Landau where he suggested that JTA and ONA, with their network of 600,000 South American Jews and foreign-language newspaper clients, could assist the bureau.

“Since Mr. Landau’s English was very poor, and it was rather difficult to understand his exact proposition, I requested that he prepare a memorandum outlining in detail just what he felt his group would be able to do and the estimated expense involved,” Foxworth wrote.

In the memo, Landau suggested, among other things, that ONA could employ noncitizens with extensive information. “Your employing them directly has obvious disadvantages,” he wrote.

Steve Usdin. Photo courtesy of @steveusdin1

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Usdin never found definitive proof that Hoover declined to hire Landau, but two years later an FBI memo noted that it had investigated Landau, JTA and ONA for failing to register as foreign agents. Usdin noted that about this time Hoover had turned on the British after BSC began collaborating with the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA, and went after several BSC operatives.

Several Soviet secret cables also mention ONA, and a third seems to discuss granting credentials or a visa for an ONA reporter to work in Moscow. Yet another document reveals that the Soviets knew Landau was working with an intelligence agency.

After writing a 2005 book about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy ring, Usdin began working on a guide to Washington espionage sites, and he was working on a sidebar on the National Press Club when he realized that stories about spying at the club, where ONA had its D.C. office, could fill a whole volume on its own.

His office filled with stacks of Freedom of Information Act files, but he began to question how wide an appeal the book could have.

“Every day, I would look at the stack, and it would look back at me,” he said. “Every once in a while, I would pretend I was working on a book.”

Then, all of a sudden, fake news and attempts to influence elections were dominating the national conversation, and his research got a new life.

In the book, Usdin notes that the overwhelming majority of journalists in the war years neither worked for nor collaborated with intelligence officials and didn’t plant fake stories.

When critics say he shouldn’t have written this book during the Trump era, he pushes back. “It’s tremendously irritating to me that an area of inquiry should be off-limits, because people can misinterpret it,” he said. “That’s not history. That’s something else.”

He also advises approaching the news with humility that comes from poring over lessons of the past. Isolationists during World War II have come down on the wrong side of history, he said, but noted they were dismissed at the time as right-wing fearmongers for their charges that British intelligence was operating in the U.S. and placing fake stories in U.S. newspapers.

“It turned out they were right,” Usdin said.


  1. I find most of the bluster of your comments, such as this one, to be the fakest of news.

  2. Transparency……………………………I hope sane minds can read through this headline. They admit lying.
    Soap made out of jew fat = Elaboration. aka – hoax
    Lampshades made out of jew skin = Elaboration. aka – hoax
    jew shrunken heads = Elaboration. aka – hoax
    Read — “The Hoax of the 20th Century” by Arthur Butz.

  3. Sorry lying derp, but Holocaust Denial has already been proven to the public as pure malicious hokum

    If you have a problem with that, take it up with David Irving. He ruined it for you guys for almost a generation.

  4. I would expect no other response from an online subscriber.
    Speaking of the holocaust, did you know that the “paper or record” ignored the holocaust during WWII until it was publicly called out?

  5. it would be nice to see you post a comment that refrained from name calling and mischaracterization of your interlocutor. It’s a petty tactic.

    A periodical usually isn’t the same long-lived entity from founding until it’s demise. It’s nature and character change constantly as staff and management change. As new blood is brought in and the dregs are kicked out. The NYT of WW2 isn’t the NYT of the Iraq War or even the NYT of today. And even the NYT makes mistakes, as does the Chicago Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, etc.

  6. I always wonder what holocaust deniers have to gain by insisting that this monumental crime against humanity didn’t occur. Having had the opportunity to travel Europe and visit a number of concentration/extermination camps in multiple countries over the course of a summer, I cannot imagine anyone with any intellectual honesty, empathy or basic knowledge of world history who could come to any conclusion other than man is incredibly industrious and inherently evil.
    Whether we are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, or opposite sides of an armed conflict; we are still human – made in God’s image; different, yet same. No human being (Jew, Pole, homosexual, gypsy, etc.) deserved to be treated as these people were.

  7. I used to believe as you. That was before I studied the “other side”. whether you will do that or not remains to be seen.

    Soap made out of jew fat = Elaboration. Aka – hoax

    Lampshades made out of jew skin = Elaboration. Aka – hoax.

    What else are they lying about?

    The death toll number has changed at Auschwitz by 2.5 million. So at a minimum this “6 million” mantra needs to change. But it won’t. Because the 6 mil is Symbolic as they tried to frame people for a 6 million holocaust decades BEFORE the actual alleged event.

    Read “The First Holocaust”


    A nursery for new born babies and a honeymoon suite! http://www.tomatobubble.com/id966.html

    Something stinks!

  8. What do they have to gain? They don’t believe what you believe as stated in your second paragraph. Commenters like Roy Hobs have stated that they would have been proud Nazis had they been around at the time of the second World War.

  9. “I always wonder what holocaust deniers have to gain by insisting that this monumental crime against humanity didn’t occur.”

    Real easy, it is purely as antisemitic trolling. Its nothing more than an expression of bigotry in its most open form.

    Holocaust deniers know they are full of crap, but they say it all just as a form of attack. They are hoping people are stupid or disinterested enough to take them seriously. Even at the fringes of the subject.

    David Irving’s work was put out by mainstream publishers on several historical subjects before they caught wise to his lying.

    This is why I keep posting the link to the Irving/Lipstadt trial site. http://www.hdot.org

    One thing which was crystal clear from that trial is that Holocaust Denial requires knowing and purposeful misrepresenting facts and phony arguments.

    A breakdown of denier nonsense

  10. This article only touches the tip of the iceberg of the long list of lies told about World War 2. We are still silenced from telling the Truth as we know it.

  11. Give me one reason why the great men and women of the nsdap should be ashamed.

  12. I could give reasonable people many reasons. You don’t fall into that category.

  13. Your Reason and Logic —
    The kosher historians changed the death toll number at Auschwitz by 2.5 million. But yet you and all the other lemmings still parrot the 6 million. They even throw old ladies in jail for questioning the 6 million; which they themselves admit is now 3.5 million.
    The kosher historians told us the Germans made soap out of jew fat. Which was later admitted to be an elaboration; or a mistake.
    The kosher historians told us the Germans made Lampshades out of jew skin. Which later they retracted as an elaboration and or a mistake.
    Shrunken Heads = mistake.
    Mobile Diesel buses used to gas jews = admitted mistake.
    All of these mistakes simply passed off as legitimate history.
    See — Arthur Butz, “The Hoax of the 20th Century”.

  14. The truth usually comes out eventually there will be bombshells about the lead up to and events during WW2

  15. There have already been bombshells, denied by some, disbelieved by others, and just ignored by most (interest is waning).

    And no, the truth does NOT usually come out eventually. Not for most people, most times. Lies and other misinformation dominate the thinking of most, most of the time.

  16. The “isolationists” did NOT come down on the wrong side of history. Certainly not for me, and MY history. Maybe for YOUR history.

    We each can and should have our own history. History really doesn’t exist outside what each of us believes, from time to time.

  17. So you are a Nazi who is unhappy that the US waged a secret war against them from 1939-40. So sorry to hear that

  18. Pretty straightforward with about 30 years of buildup leading to it. Simple answer the cause if WWII was WWI. Even in the pacific. Nothing earth shattering there.

  19. We Nazis just hate war, that’s all.

    AND I (an American) just don’t like being deceived, either. Dying for (or from) a lie. Worse than just dying?

  20. LOL. You are anti American slime and proud of it.

    My grandfather should have done a better job dropping high explosives and incindiaries on the homes of your ancestors with his B-17 crew.

  21. https://jan27.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2-29-44-british-note.jpg

    The letter from the British Ministry is outlined in red above, reproduced in the 1958 book Allied Wartime Diplomacy: A Pattern in Poland by Edward J. Rozek, pages 209-210. It was posted at Winston Smith Ministry of Truth in 2011 and introduced as evidence in the Zundel trials in 1985 and 1988 .

    «This is a February 29, 1944 letter to the BBC and higher members of the British Clergy, from the British Ministry of Information [ie Propaganda].


    I am directed by the Ministry to send you the following circular letter :

    It is often the duty of the good citizens and of the pious Christians to turn a blind eye on the peculiarities ofthose associated with us.
    But the time comes when such peculiarities, while still denied in public, must be taken into account when action by us is called for.
    We know the methods of rule employed by the Bolshevik dictator in Russia itself from, for example, the writing and speeches of the Prime Minister himself during the last twenty years. We know how the Red Army behaved in Poland in 1920 and in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Galicia and Bessarabia only recently. We must, therefore, take into account how the Red Army will certainly behave when it overruns Central Europe. Unless precautions are taken, the obviously inevitable horrors which will result will throw an undue strain on public opinion in this country. We cannot reform the Bolsheviks but we can do our best to save them — and ourselves — from the consequences of their acts. The disclosures of the past quarter of a century will render mere denials unconvincing. The only alternative to denial is to distract public attention from the whole subject. Experience has shown that the best distraction is atrocity propaganda directed against the enemy. Unfortunately the public is no longer so susceptible as in the days of the “Corpse Factory,” and the “Mutilated Belgian Babies,” and the “Crucified Canadians.” Your cooperation is therefore earnestly sought to distract public attention from the doings of the Red Army by your wholehearted support of various charges against the Germans and Japanese which have been and will be put into circulation by the Ministry. Your expression of belief in such may convince others.
    I am, Sir, Your obedient servant,


    The Ministry can enter into no correspondence of any kind with regard to this communication which should only be disclosed to responsible persons.»


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