Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
FOREIGN MEDDLING IN AMERICAN ELECTIONS didn’t start in 2016. In 1968, the Greek military junta, which had overthrown its country’s democratic government the year before, tried to buy influence by secretly funneling $549,000—almost $4 million in today’s dollars—to the Nixon campaign, money that likely began as “black budget” US aid to the Greek equivalent of the CIA.
The winning margin in that election, the second-closest presidential contest in the 20th century, was less than 1 percent. The bagman for the illegal funds was tycoon and Republican Party fundraiser Tom Pappas, who later became known on the Watergate tapes as “the Greek bearing gifts.” Timely disclosure of this transfer could have meant a Hubert Humphrey victory, no President Nixon, no Watergate, and a different course of history.
At a 2009 fundraiser for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, of which I am a founding board member, I told our guest speaker Sy Hersh I was considering writing something on this unexplored transaction, a stillborn October Surprise. He recommended I contact Greek journalist Elias Demetracopoulos in Washington, the person who tried unsuccessfully to expose the money-laundering plot. When I did, I quickly realized that this episode was but part of Elias’s much larger and even more compelling life story.
As a boy he was brutalized for fighting his homeland’s Nazi occupiers and imprisoned. He survived being shot in the Greek Civil War and nearly died of tuberculosis incubated during his incarceration. Inspired to become an investigative journalist by the 1948 assassination in Greece of CBS correspondent George Polk, Elias became a fiercely independent and scoop-hungry reporter, exposing truths others wanted hidden.
In 1967 he escaped Greece’s military dictatorship and fled to Washington, where for seven years he led the fight to restore democracy in his homeland. He became a target of Greek plots to kidnap and execute him, as well as of CIA, FBI, and State Department attacks on his reputation and effectiveness. Unbroken, he resolutely stood up for himself, his country, and his sense of honor.
Elias Demetracopoulos was a difficult subject. He gave me full power under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts to access all his government files, and he provided reams of articles and documents concerning better-known aspects of his career, but opened up only slowly about his multifaceted personal life. He steadfastly resisted divulging the names of sources to whom he had pledged confidentiality, even long after the sources had died. Nevertheless, for more than five years I visited him frequently and talked with him by phone, often daily, as I tried to peel back the layers of his story, getting him to confirm or disconfirm information I’d discovered elsewhere, and reveal more of himself. Eventually he gave me access to his personal files, shared once-hidden stories, and permitted friends who held his confidences to speak openly with me.
Journalist, information broker, lobbyist, Wall Street financial consultant, trusted advisor, tipster, troublemaker, “dangerous gadfly,” suspected foreign agent, desired extra man for Georgetown dinner parties, impassioned democracy fighter and free press advocate, a man with friends and sources spanning the political spectrum, Elias always cultivated an air of mystery and carefully compartmentalized the different parts of his life. When he died in 2016, obituaries in both the New York Times and the Washington Post described him as “enigmatic”; he was said to have negotiated “a unique and controversial swath through Washington’s political and social thickets.”
Elias P. Demetracopoulos was never as famous as celebrity mononyms like Bono, Oprah, Liberace, and Madonna, but for decades he was known around the nation’s capital and in major European cities as simply “Elias.” And being famous in Washington is different from being famous in music or Hollywood.
When Susan Margolis sought to explain fame in her 1977 book of that name, she chose Elias as her exemplar of fame in Washington. Fame, for Margolis, involved having power, having access to power, or appearing to have such access. Elias had it all. The essence of his success, she wrote, was his ability to be both an outsider and an insider, projecting an attractively reassuring savoir faire; to be a trusted keeper and sharer of secrets who had mastered the game of knowing what and how much to disclose or tantalizingly hold back until the next time.
We can see the impact of Demetracopoulos’s reputation in the difference between two 1976 receptions held in honor of the publisher of To Vima, the then-influential Greek newspaper, following the restoration of Greek democracy. The Greek ambassador invited celebrity journalists and government officials to his embassy, but the gathering was small and unnoticed. The only “A-list invitees” who attended were Margaret Truman and her husband Clifton Daniels of the New York Times.
The next evening, Elias borrowed the mansion of his friends Walter and Lydia Marlowe and threw a party for the same publisher that became the talk of the town. The guests included forty-two senators, with names like Fulbright, Kennedy, and Javits, thirty-four congressmen, cabinet officials, leading Washington socialites, financiers, reporters, columnists, editors, broadcast journalists, bureaucrats, and twenty-two ambassadors, including the Greek ambassador.
It was a remarkable achievement for someone who for many years was deemed persona non grata by both Greek and American officials.
There are lessons for us in Elias’s unyielding battles against powerful and abusive governments and for human rights and democratic values; his dogged pursuit of news and would-be news leakers; his belief in the potential of congressional investigations and hearings to expose wrongdoing; and his effectiveness in working across partisan political aisles.
There are eerie echoes today of Elias’s world of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s: when foreign money tainted and undermined free and fair elections, when fragile democratic norms buckled under popular susceptibility to authoritarian impulses, when human rights were deemed expendable, when independent journalists and political critics were harassed, subjected to disinformation campaigns, and disparaged as purveyors of fake news.
It’s my hope that the saga that follows will illuminate the real story behind this extraordinary Greek patriot and relentless champion of democracy and a free press.