James H. Barron’s  Answers  to Questions from  Nikos Papadimitriou Regarding “The Key Man”

Interview translated from «Ο άνθρωπος κλειδί»: Η συναρπαστική βιογραφία του ασυμβίβαστου Ομογενή Η. Δημητρακόπουλου.

How did you get to know him?

My original plan was to write about the largely unknown story of Greek-American tycoon Tom Pappas—from my hometown of Boston–who illegally tried to influence the 1968 US election on behalf of the junta.  

As part of my research, I flew to Washington in 2009 to interview retired journalist Elias Demetracopoulos, who had uncovered that scandal.  I quickly realized that this episode was but a small part of Demetracopoulos’s larger, even more dramatic life story. It was his full saga I knew I had to tell.

Elias was a difficult subject. He cultivated an air of mystery and carefully compartmentalized the different parts of his life. He cherished his privacy and enigmatic reputation. Initially, 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 those sources had died. 

Elias understood that I would do independent research, and he would have no editorial control over my manuscript. He accepted my precondition that I have full power to access all his private American government files. But he still tried to control my narrative. I would not let that happen. 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. Eventually he would reveal more of himself. Over time, he gave me access to thousands of his personal papers, shared once-hidden stories, and permitted friends who held his confidences to speak openly with me. At our last meeting, he hugged me, tears running down his cheeks, telling me I was the little brother he never had.

For the benefit of Greek readers who probably haven’t heard of him, how would you describe Elias? During which periods of history was he active?

In my pitch to create a movie or tv series based on my book, I’ve described the story as a non-fiction political thriller about a controversial journalist who relentlessly battles for democracy, honor and survival against abusive Greek and American governments trying to destroy him.

Elias was active from the early days of the Occupation, through the Civil War, Cold War, Junta years and beyond. He was a journalist before he was a journalist, a lifelong gatherer and disseminator of information. He became a fiercely independent and aggressive investigative reporter, covering primarily American affairs in Greece in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly for Kathimerini, Makedonia and Ethnos. With access to powerful sources who spanned the political spectrum, the scoop-hungry journalist had many friends and attracted many enemies. He was the first journalist to interview Archbishop Makarios after his release from house arrest in 1955.  His exposés frequently angered Konstantinos Karamanlis who labeled him persona non grata. His articles influenced the outcome of the controversial 1963 Greek election. Close to George Papandreou, Elias had an uneven relationship with Andreas Papandreou.  His scoops often angered American officials. The CIA secretly pressured Time, The New York Herald Tribune, and other American newspapers to fire him.

After the Greek military dictatorship seized power in 1967, Elias narrowly escaped to Washington where he switched roles from journalist to activist. A leader in the battle to restore democracy in his homeland, he challenged Democratic and Republican Administrations, both of which favored Cold War realpolitik over human rights. He was the major outsider pushing Congress to stop supporting the dictatorship. The junta stripped him of his citizenship but couldn’t stop him from indefatigably fighting back in the US and Europe, alone and with others.  He championed the interests of torture victims like Spyros Moustaklis and, in 1973, was a spokesman for voiceless veterans of the 17 November uprising. After the Velos Mutiny, Commander Nikos Pappas wrote Demetracopoulos, thanking him for doing more to help his sailors than anyone else in the diaspora. Elias never told anyone about this. I found the letter in his papers after he died.

American ambassador Henry Tasca complained to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that implementing US policy regarding Greece was more difficult than anywhere else in the world because no other country “has a Demetracopoulos” who for years had been “leading a very vigorous fight” against our policy there. When Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, Elias was one of the few who knew the details of Makarios’s escape, and he flew to Geneva to help George Mavros with the negotiations.  The CIA, FBI, and State Department spied on and harassed Demetracopoulos, trying to destroy his reputation and effectiveness.  The Greek dictatorship repeatedly sought to kidnap and kill him. Unbroken, he stood up for himself, his country, and his sense of honor. And, in 2008, the Greek government honored him for his “constant fight to preserve democracy.”                            

Let’s focus on “katoxi”, the years of German occupation. Elias Demetracopoulos, still a young schoolboy, was arrested and tortured by the SS, but didn’t betray other resistance fighters

Beginning as a precocious 12-year-old in 1941, Elias engaged in dangerous resistance efforts, largely intelligence-gathering, sabotage and transferring guns. The youngest member in OAG, a small urban resistance group in occupied Athens, he learned to keep secrets and compartmentalize relationships.  At 14 he was captured, brutally tortured, sentenced to death and locked up in Averof prison.  After an especially cruel beating, he promised himself that, if he ever got out alive, he would never again allow anyone to brutalize him. The theme of philotimo, in its different manifestations, weaves throughout his story.

To save him from execution, Archbishop Damaskinos got him transferred at Christmastime 1943 to Aiginition, then a horrifying mental hospital, where he endured the last year of the war.  During the Civil War he was shot while trying to save relatives who’d been kidnapped by the Communists. He nearly died from tuberculosis.  Elias later received citations for his WWII heroism.

Through your book’s main subject though, an important revelation had surfaced: Richard Nixon won the 1968 Presidential Elections by a less than 1% margin. According to your research, it looks like there has been a Greek interference in the elections, while Greece was suffering from the junta regime.  Would you like to tell us a little bit more about it?

2016 wasn’t the first year in which foreign money may have changed the outcome of an American presidential election. In 1968 Elias became suspicious when Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice-presidential running mate, broke his promise of neutrality and voiced full support of the dictatorship.  Elias then uncovered that the junta and Republican fundraiser Tom Pappas sought to influence the American presidential election by secretly funneling to the Nixon-Agnew campaign today’s equivalent of millions of dollars. This money began as “black budget” CIA money to support KYP.

Elias tried unsuccessfully to get top Democrats to expose the plot. In the book I explain the untold story about why this didn’t work. This was the second closest American presidential election in the 20th century. Democrats, Republicans, and journalists who covered the campaign agree that effective and timely disclosure of this illegal cash transaction could have changed the outcome.  Just imagine a Hubert Humphrey victory, no President Nixon, no Watergate, and a different course of history. 

Is there any chance that this affair had been related with the famous breaking into the Democratic Party Headquarters, known internationally as the Watergate Scandal?

Absolutely. There is a trail of strong circumstantial evidence that runs from October 1968 to the June 1972 break-in.

The information about Pappas, KYP and the junta that Elias gave to Democratic National Committee chairman Larry O’Brien in 1968 at the Watergate office building was still in O’Brien’s possession in 1972. This information reportedly caused Nixon insiders “the most anxiety for the longest period of time.” Elias was warned to “lay off Pappas” because he was Nixon’s good friend and was threatened with deportation if he did not. The White House ordered investigations of Elias. Pappas threatened Elias directly.  Elias did not back down.

Historians have observed that one of the credible reasons for the 1972 Watergate break-in was to discover what information Democrats had about illegal foreign cash payments from the Greek military junta to the Nixon campaign in 1968, something Democrats might use against Nixon in 1972.  This so-called “Greek connection” was deemed to be “a ticking time bomb.”

The break-in seems to have been a scattershot fishing expedition targeting everything that could be used against them. The Nixon people knew that Elias Demetracopoulos had given explosive information to DNC chairman Larry O’Brien, though they didn’t know exactly what to look for.  The burglars were told “photograph whatever you can find,” and “look for financial documents—anything with numbers on them,” especially if it involved “foreign contributions.”  Nixon campaign manager Jeb Magruder, who went to jail for his role in Watergate, told historian Stanley Kutler that the Greek money was part of that larger unfocused sweep. Nixon White House Counsel Harry Dent agreed. It’s worth remembering the Greek connections to the Watergate scandal in this 50th anniversary year of the break-in. 

There are eerie echoes today of Elias’s world of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s— 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.