The Greek Connection by James H. Barron seeks to put together the pieces of what Washington Post reporter Ann Marie Lipinski calls “the Demetracopoulos puzzle,” the story of Elias Demetracopoulos, who died in Athens in 2016 at the age of 87. Lipinski begins her review of the book by noting “The Washington Post described him as an ‘enigmatic’ expatriate.’ In its obituary, the New York Times chose similar language, calling him an ‘enigmatic journalist.’ The man had been so many things, and accused of being many more, that it was difficult to sum up his story. Journalist, Nazi resistance fighter and Wall Street consultant were among his callings; spy, egotist and ‘dangerous gadfly’ were among the accusations. His life was so complicated it was hard to tell where one version of Demetracopoulos ended and another began.”
Lipinski informs, however, that Demetracopoulos was not the puzzle Barron “originally set out to solve. Barron was researching allegations of a transfer of funds from Greece’s intelligence agency to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, which he believed formed an underexplored chapter of Watergate. But Barron, a journalist and lawyer, writes “I quickly realized … that this episode was but part of Elias’s much larger and even more compelling life story.”
“He spoke with Demetracopoulos for five years, sometimes daily, until his death in 2016,” Lipinski writes, adding, “the story that emerges is at times cinematic, starting with a moving account of 12-year-old Elias’s resistance efforts during the Nazi occupation of Athens. The boy was imprisoned, beaten, and moved to an asylum before being released. Later, stricken with tuberculosis and homebound, Demetracopoulos relied on newspapers as a link to the outside world and as the source of a possible career. ‘He didn’t want to be a doctor, lawyer, businessman, or engineer. He wanted to be a journalist,’ Barron writes. ‘He also reckoned that, if he did it well, he could even be more famous than the people he covered. He wanted to make news by getting news.’”
Demetracopoulos, “while reporting for a series of Greek and American newspapers, cultivated connections to powerful figures, regularly blurring journalistic boundaries … Demetracopoulos seemed to acquire sources and detractors in equal measure. He would spend decades combating CIA, FBI and State Department reports that maligned and discredited him. The list of countries alleged but never proved to have hired him as a spy included Israel, the Soviet Union, the United States and Greece,” Lipinski writes.
As a journalist, “Demetracopoulos specialized in exclusive interviews with government officials and fancied the nickname ‘the Scooper.’ But a desire for political influence seduced him and ultimately undercuts the author’s claims for him as a model for modern journalists … This tension between journalism and activism sits at the heart of the book’s inquiry into a corner of the Watergate story,” writes Lipinski.
When U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew “made a surprise endorsement of the Greek junta, Demetracopoulos suspected dark motives and started contacting sources. The story he pieced together was explosive: He laid out a tale of the military dictatorship secretly funneling $549,000 to the Nixon campaign in a drachma-to-dollars transfer that probably included CIA black-budget money.”
Lipinski notes that “rather than informing reporters, Demetracopoulos sought a path to President Lyndon Johnson” and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. She continues, “the would-be Nixon scandal was a ‘stillborn October Surprise.’ The scandal outlined by Demetracopoulos’s sources lacked incontrovertible evidence, and it’s painful to read of his reliance on the Humphrey campaign to prove it. Why didn’t Demetracopoulos take his story elsewhere, including to U.S. journalists with whom he had relationships? An answer is elusive. All Barron can say is, ‘not doing so was a fatal miscalculation.’”
Stronger evidence appeared after Nixon resigned. “This included,” Lipinski writes, “Hersh’s reporting that a former U.S. ambassador to Greece gave secret House testimony about the transfer of funds from the junta to Nixon’s reelection coffers.”
Barron explores alternate histories where “the story costs Nixon the election and there is no Watergate. Instead of Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who break the story of the junta’s illegal payments become journalistic icons. And Elias Demetracopoulos, not Daniel Ellsberg, is the “international poster boy for whistleblowers.”
Ann Marie Lipinski directs the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. She is a former editor of the Chicago Tribune, where she received a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.