I Am Not a CIA Agent


"People are saying you're a CIA agent." Those are the last words a reporter working in a high-tension overseas hotspot wants to hear. It is those words that make it imperative for the government to adopt an ironclad policy against using journalism as a CIA cover.

I heard those words in 1986. As a Wall Street Journal reporter, I was in South Africa, chronicling black, shantytown life in Port Elizabeth's Soweto (sometimes called Soweto-by-the-sea to distinguish it from the larger Johannesburg location). It was four years before Nelson Mandela would get out of prison. The African townships were in the throws of rebellion.

Repression by the Pretoria regime was heavy. Police and army patrols were often met with rocks, occasionally fire bombs. Perceived traitors sometimes got the necklace, a tire doused with fuel then set alight by young revolutionaries.

After I told some young people I used my laptop to send information to Washington, meaning the Journal's D.C. bureau, word apparently spread that I was a CIA spy. Fortunately, I was able to talk my way out of that situation. Tragically, Danny Pearl, my colleague at the Journal and at Friday morning basketball games, could not talk his way out of a death sentence. Sixteeen years later he was kidnapped in January and murdered at the hands of barbaric killers in Pakistan.

My brief encounter was certainly nowhere near as serious as Danny's kidnapping and murder. But what the two have in common is this notion that U.S. foreign correspondents are spies. Danny's kidnappers first said he was a CIA agent, then claimed he was with Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.

Those charges were total bull. Danny was a lot of things -- a bluegrass fiddler, a classical violinist, a fine writer, a great reporter, a decent basketball player, a devoted husband and a father-to-be -- but he certainly was not a spy. His captors used that as an excuse.

The CIA and Congress can help prevent that claim from being used again by issuing rock-solid, no-exception rules that journalists will not be used as spies and its spies will not pretend to be journalists.

That's what the American Society of Newspaper Editors has called on the CIA to do.

In a March 21 letter to George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, ASNE President Tim J. McGuire and Tony W. Pederson, chair of ASNE's International Committee, said the agency should "declare unequivocally as policy that it will not use journalist covers for its agents."

"This has been done from time to time, but to our knowledge is not now being done," the March 21 letter added. "We would urge that the CIA make it official policy that journalist covers will not be used under any circumstances. A change in this policy and an announcement of such is appropriate to assure the standing of newspaper journalists and, it seems to us, the integrity of the CIA."

Currently there is agency policy and U.S. law against using journalist covers, but there are loopholes.

In 1996, then CIA director John M. Deutch told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that "CIA's policy is not to use journalists accredited to American news organizations, their parent organizations, American clergy or the Peace Corps for intelligence purposes. This includes any use of such organizations for cover."

The Intelligence Authorization Act for 1997 flatly stated that "it is the policy of the United States that an element of the Intelligence Community may not use as an agent or asset for the purpose of collecting intelligence correspondents for U.S. news agencies."

One loophole that is both agency policy and the law refer only to domestic news organizations. Neither prohibits the use of foreign reporters as spies or prevents U.S. spies from pretending to be foreign reporters. Furthermore, the law and the agency's policy can be waived by the president or the CIA director.

Congress apparently adopted Deutch's reasoning to the committee that "the Agency should not be prohibited from considering the use of American journalists or clergy," because there could come a time "when the lives of American hostages depended upon particular knowledge only a journalist might have or obtain."

Former AP correspondent Terry Anderson, who was held hostage for almost seven years in Lebanon, begs to differ. He told the 1996 Senate committee hearing that one of the repeated demands during rough interrogations by his captors was: "Give us the name of the CIA agent at the AP who you report to." On other occasions, he said, he "had loaded weapons pointed at my head by screaming militia men shouting, 'Spy, Spy.' "

Anderson said exceptions to the prohibition, "no matter how hedged or restricted, would simply be an acknowledgement to those who suspect us of being spies that �yes, on occasion, you�re right.'"

Deutch, in making his argument some five years before September 11, proved prescient: "I can foresee the possibility of a terrorist group attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in a crowded urban area where both the president and the nation would look to the Agency to use all possible means to detect and deter such an event."

But �all possible means� covers too much. The government should not trample the rights of citizens, immigrants or visitors. It should not detain people without specific cause. It should not target people simply because of race or ethnicity.

And intelligence agencies also should never use journalism as cover, even to combat something as evil as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The policy against doing so should be without exception. Anything short of that puts people like Danny at greater risk.

Joe Davidson is a charter Poynter Ethics Fellow and a commentator for NPR's Morning Edition.

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