A columnist for the right-wing Human Events magazine who touts himself as a former CIA paramilitary officer is almost certainly an imposter, according to retired agency operatives and other experts.
In his rants against the Obama administration and the U.S "ruling class," Franklin “Cork” Graham claims he went to El Salvador as a freelance photojournalist in the mid-1980s and was recruited by the CIA. For four years, he says, he was "deployed as a paramilitary officer."
“As a former CIA paramilitary operations officer, I worked for two of your predecessors,“ Graham claimed in a July 26 “open letter” to President Obama decrying the prosecution of an agency employee on charges of torturing a detainee. “One was a staunch defender of the U.S. Constitution,” he writes, apparently referring to Ronald Reagan. “The other was more occupied with the New World Order,” apparently George H. W. Bush.
“During that time I also worked for two different Directors of Central Intelligence,” Graham goes on to claim. “One was a man I respected greatly” -- an apparent reference to William Casey -- “one who understood the origins and importance of the Central Intelligence Agency and the real threat of our greatest enemy of the last century.”
But according to retired former CIA officer Merle Pribbenow, everything the Belmont, Calif.-based Graham shares about himself-- including pictures on his personal Web site -- undercuts his claims.
“I certainly wouldn't exclude the possibility that he was a ’witting contact’ or perhaps that he had even been recruited to perform one task or another,” Pribbenow said in an e-mail.
“However, that would not make him a paramilitary officer. We did not hire paramilitary officers who had no military experience or training -- that would be like hiring a dentist whose only dental experience was having his teeth cleaned twice a year.”
In his Wikipedia entry, Graham makes no claim of being a military veteran. The closest he seems to have come to any clandestine activity was illegally landing on a Vietnamese island in 1983 in search of treasure said to have been buried by the 17th-century pirate Captain Kidd. He spent nearly a year in a Vietnamese prison.
“I am convinced that this guy is another ‘wannabe’ and a general con-man along the lines of so many agency wannabes we have seen over the years,” Pribbenow says.
Likewise, David Spencer, a National Defense University professor and author of “From Vietnam to El Salvador: The Saga of the FMLN Sappers and Other Guerrilla Special Forces in Latin America,” cast doubt on Graham’s claims.
“I can almost guarantee he's a poser,” Spencer said after studying Graham’s claims and photos on his Web site. There are nearly a dozen reasons for doubting Graham’s claims, Spencer said, from his “commercial camouflage uniform” to his rifle in one particular photo.
“It is a standard infantry M16A1. If you were a paramilitary officer, you would be carrying your own weapon which, like the real U.S. Special Forces soldier next to him, would probably be an M16 carbine variant with personalized optics, stock, etc.,” Spencer said.
“Probably the infantryman who is taking the photo handed this guy his rifle to hold while he took the photo.”
Graham’s braggadocio is another giveaway, said Spencer, who met several CIA officers during his time in Central America.
“I have never met a real CIA paramilitary officer who ever advertised like this, that he had been a CIA paramilitary officer,” Spencer said. “Only since 9/11 have there been a couple of books that have come out by guys [who served] in Afghanistan, but that was not the norm for people in the 1980s.”
“I have found four different photos on the internet of this guy -- next to the U.S. adviser, next to a helicopter, standing on a hill, etc.,” Spencer added. “That immediately screams ‘poser’ to me, someone who wants everyone to know that he was there. Real professionals don't need everyone else to know what they did.”
A photojournalist who was working in El Salvador at the time also cast doubt on Graham’s claims, especially one that he was wounded in action.
“A lot of us were in San Miguel when the 3rd Brigade was attacked. If there was a 'gringo' wounded in that attack, the word would have gotten out," she said on condition of anonymity because she didn't want her comments to affect her current business. "I imagine the FMLN [the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels] had that garrison highly infiltrated.”
She added, "It was such a complex war. It would be easy for Cork Graham to make up anything he wants. None of us ever knew him."
Charles Gillen, a former CIA case officer and author of “Saigon Station,” a thinly disguised novel about his experiences in Vietnam, thinks agency retirees ought to set up an informal organization to vet the claims of Graham and others.
"What the CIA needs is a sort of 'CIA Anti-Defamation League' of retirees not shy about speaking up, even when the agency keeps mum, about such imposters,” Gillen said. “Many old hands feel their misleading lies indeed defame an institution we insiders tried to serve both loyally and honorably.”
Graham’s only response to a query abut his CIA credentials came in an e-mail message on July 27. “Thank you for your message. I'll contact you as soon as possible!” He has not answered subsequent messages.
Senior editors at Human Events did not immediately respond to e-mail queries.