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Did the CIA murder a journalist working on the Sunday Times?

John Simkin

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The Sunday Times chief foreign correspondent, David Holden was murdered in December 1977 soon after arriving in Cairo to report on Israeli-Egyptian peace-talks. At first, the authorities told the editor, Harold Evans, that Holden had probably been murdered by a taxi-driver. The motive was that Holden had made sexual advances towards the man.

Evans sent three of his top journalists to investigate Holden’s death. They soon discovered that the original theory was clearly wrong. Holden’s body was found on a piece of waste ground. He was on his back, his feet neatly together, his arms folded across the chest. All marks that might suggest his identity or nationality had been removed, including the maker’s label in his jacket.

The manner of his death was equally methodical. He had been shot once from behind with a short-cartridge 9mm automatic. The range was so close that his jacket was scorched. The killer had aimed his gun down-ward so that the bullet would pierce Holden’s heart.

Research by the police discovered that Holden had not been picked up by a registered taxi-driver at the airport. Eventually, a white Fiat had been found abandoned. In the boot they found Holden’s suitcase and his portable typewriter. They also found his notes for the book he was writing on Saudi Arabia. Missing were his passport, his camera, any exposed films and any material he had accumulated on his trip. As the officer in charge of the case remarked: “It looks as if the killers knew what they were looking for.”

The airport was teeming with security men. Therefore, he could not have been forced into the car. It is assumed the only reason he willingly got into the car was because he trusted the people whom he met at the airport.

A second Fiat car was found abandoned. This one included the cartridge case matching the 9mm bullet. Holden’s bloodstains were also found in the car. The headrest on the passenger seat had been removed to make it easier for the gunman to shoot Holden from behind. The missing headrest was found in the first car.

Nearly a month later, a third Fiat was found with documents from the murder car. All three Fiats had been stolen in identical fashion. The first car had been stolen on the day following Holden’s decision to take the assignment. The car that contained his belongings was stolen the day after Holden agreed to report on the peace-talks. (He initially refused the assignment because he was working on a book about Saudi Arabia.)

The other two cars were stolen on the day that Holden booked his flight from Jerusalem to Cairo. The journalists investigating the case came to the conclusion it was a well-planned assassination.

One of the surprising aspects of the case was that the killers appeared to have precise details of Holden’s movements. For example, Holden appears to have been followed as he went via Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank before arriving in Cairo.

It was initially assumed that the Holden had been killed by Fatah hardcore rejectionists, who were attempting to sabotage Sadat’s peace initiative. However, this made no sense as Holden was seen as someone sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Fatah’s chairman, Yasser Arafat, told them that the Sunday Times had been regarded as a “friend of the cause” because it had campaigned against the ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners.

Another theory was that Holden was a victim of mistaken identity. David Hirst of the Guardian had angered Sadat by writing several articles about corruption in the Egyptian government.

About a month after the killing of Holden, an intelligence source told one of the Sunday Times journalists that: “the killers knew exactly when Holden would arrive in Cairo because they got the information from the horse’s mouth”. In other words, the organisation responsible for his death had a spy within the offices of the Sunday Times.

Evans also discovered that incoming messages about the case were being stolen from the telex room. Evans called in Scotland Yard and it was decided to set-up a sting operation. The police’s C-10 surveillance unit hid infrared cameras to monitor office movements. Police officers also worked undercover at the Sunday Times. Evans points out in his recently published autobiography: “We then baited the trap.” Department heads were told there had been a breakthrough by senior reporter Paul Eddy who was working in Cairo on the case. However, the cameras failed to pick up anyone stealing Eddy’s messages being sent to the telex room. Evans points out in his autobiography: “I began to think I’d made a mistake letting the Foreign Office know that we’d detected the thefts. What if our own secret intelligence service (MI6) had played some role in the abduction of Holden?”

Further research showed that when Holden was on the way to Cairo he had a meeting with two American archaeologists, John and Isobel Fistere in Amman. Holden had originally met the Fisteres in Beirut in 1963. They were with Kim Philby just before he fled to the Soviet Union. It was generally believed that the Fisteres were keeping watch on Philby on behalf of the CIA. Later the Fisteres denied eyewitness accounts that they spent time with Holden. According to them, they only met with him briefly in the hotel press centre. The journalists also discovered that Holden had a meeting with an academic at Birzeit University. Later it was revealed that he was a paid agent of the CIA.

The Sunday Times then discovered that the CIA had a file on Holden that contained 33 documents. This dates back to a close relationship he had with Leo Silberman, a former communist who was a supporter of Israel but also an anti-Zionist. According to Silberman’s brother, the two men had been lovers. This came as a surprise as Holden, who was married to Ruth Lynam, a photojournalist, was known to be a very active heterosexual. Silberman died in 1960.

The investigating journalists became convinced that Holden had been working for the CIA. This was linked to his reporting of CIA involvement in Cuba and Chile. For example, his reports in 1973 strongly denied that the CIA was involved in the overthrow of President Allende.

In 1988 the Sunday Times was told by a senior US diplomat in the Middle East that Holden had been killed on the orders of the CIA but it had been carried out by Egyptian agents.

After looking at all the evidence Harold Evans become convinced that the CIA was involved in the death of Holden. He had been informed that the Holden case was the “liquidation of an asset”. This belief was increased when the CIA and FBI blocked efforts to see American intelligence files on Holden under the US Freedom of Information Act. Instead, the CIA argued that Holden had been killed by Egyptian terrorists who wanted his press credentials.

The question remains why? By 1977 Holden was clearly not willing to be part of Operation Mockingbird. However, that is no real reason to kill him. Unless, of course, he was willing to write about how the CIA had been manipulating the foreign press since 1947.

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I received this interesting email on David Holden:

Very intrigued by your elegant entry on Holden, which I'd like to refer to in a footnote to the Wikipedia article that I am battling to get retained in toto on Wikipedia. The original entry on Holden was written by a semi-literate fool. It was corrected by me, My version was then bowdlerized to remove anything remotely anti-Zionist, which left it a little nonsensical. I've just thrown my version back into the fray.I question several of your assertions, beginning with your reconstruction of Holden's itinerary en route for Cairo, but I certainly do not necessarily disagree with even the most outrageous of them. I might add that I was living in Cairo at the time and knew all the currently resident British journalists and diplomats. One of the former told me he knew that who dunnit, but was afraid to say.

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