The CIA Operative Who Spied On The D.C. Press

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Quicksilver Times, May 8–18, 1970.

In the age of Nixon, the Quicksilver Times, also known as the QT, was Washington, DC’s second great underground newspaper.

The paper published from 1969 to 1972, and from almost the first day, the QT was befriended by someone who turned out to be an unwanted guest. Salvatore John “Sal” Ferrera was a Chicago native with Beatles-style hair, a nervous demeanor and a master’s
degree from Loyola University (his thesis was on Marxism).

He was also a CIA spy.

Ferrera supposedly moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a PhD in political science at George Washington University. “In 1969, I received a phone call from Sal,” reported the QT’s William Blum. “He had heard that I was planning another underground newspaper in Washington, in which he expressed an interest to take part.”

Blum took Ferrera up to the QT house to meet Becker, who was building light tables in preparation for the first issue. They shook hands, and Ferrera became a full-time member.

Blum and Ferrera went to political events, shared meals and hung out together. They even carpooled when substitute teaching at Western High School in Georgetown. “He was my closest friend for a year and a half,” Blum said. No one had any idea Ferrera was an undercover CIA operative.

A black and white Quicksilver Times cover featuring Nixon's face with "Honor Amerika" over his eyes and protesters.
Quicksilver Times, July 3–13, 1970. Courtesy Paul Collinge. Image sourced from Independent Press in D.C. and Virginia: An Underground History.

A CIA priority

Undercover infiltration of New Left organizations was tops on the FBI, Secret Service, and CIA to-do lists — even if the CIA had other things on its mind. A $30 million Consolidated Law Enforcement Training Center in Beltsville, Maryland, offered training in undercover investigations, searches and raids, and development of informants. One course, called “Appraisal of Crowds and Mobs,” offered a “terminal objective” of identifying a crowd by size and type and determining “what, if any corrective, neutralizing, offensive or defensive action” would be required to calm it.

As a result, infiltration of the New Left became pervasive; of the forty substantive witnesses for the prosecution of the Chicago 7 (accused of trying to start a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago), thirty-four were undercover agents. Writer Kirk Sales, in his 1973 book SDS, reported that, in 1969, there were two thousand full-time agents working undercover in the New Left. And according to police authorities quoted in the December 1970 issue of Ramparts magazine, 90 percent of all intelligence gathered on the New Left movement was the work of infiltrators and informants.

Much of Ferrera’s espionage work still remains classified, but it is known through declassified FBI documents and books by Angus Mackenzie and Philip Agee that he also spied on former Republican Karl Hess (who headed that party’s platform committee in 1960 and 1964 for Barry Goldwater) and Youth International Party (yippie) leaders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Ferrera made friends with the Chicago 7 defendants and interviewed their lawyers, William Kunstler and Leonard Wingless, providing the CIA with critical intelligence about their trial tactics. Ferrera’s “hip” looks, demeanor and cover as a reporter admitted him inside many antiwar strategy planning sessions.

The spy’s QT cover story

Some QT collective members harbored suspicions of Sal’s lifestyle—he had the latest camera equipment and more money than he should have, but no one pegged him as a plant. “I remember Sal well,” said former member Bob Sumner in 2014. “He was around at least since the move to the new 17th and R collective house.”

“He credited his having the very latest in expensive camera equipment to a trust fund,” said former collective member Stan Flouride in 2014.

“I knew Sal Ferrera, but I don’t know which faces in the office were the FBI,” wrote Susan Tichy, who was not a collective member but just hung out. “In the pre-paranoid days, anyone who happened to be there when a meeting happened was invited to take part.”