Joe Davidson

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.

What Foreign Affairs?

Hundreds of people were killed when a cataclysmic blast blew up an ammunition depot at the Ikeja Military Cantonment, north of Lagos, Nigeria in January. It's not your fault if you know little about it. The U.S. media shamefully underplayed the story.

That's not uncommon. Africa too often is given too little attention. It's like Africans don't count.

"Americans have very poor foreign affairs knowledge," says Doyinsola Abiola, president of the Johannesburg-based Foundation for African Media Excellence (FAME) . She earned her doctorate in mass communications and political science at the University of Wisconsin. "In fact, I think they think the world begins and ends here," she said in a recent interview while visiting the United States.

Abiola lives in Ikeja and the blast shattered the windows and doors of her home. Through FAME -- which is getting help from the Virginia-based Freedom Forum -- she plans to focus on improving journalism in Africa. The Nigeria story demonstrates the dire improvement needed in this country's coverage of Africa. And it's just the latest example: the death toll from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, genocidal attacks in Burundi, and famine in the Horn of Africa are just some of the stories that received too little play in the U.S. media.

There might seem to be an inconsistency in the criticism of people like me who complain about African coverage. We groan that news organizations give too much coverage to bad news, then moan when the media don't give things like the explosion prominent play.

The problem is the superficial nature of the coverage and its lack of context and balance. There are far too many important African topics the American media ignore in favor of disaster stories. Compared to the coverage of catastrophes in Europe and Israel, for example, the coverage of African events tends to diminish the value of black life.

Newsday did a survey of how the television news operations handled the Nigerian explosion story during several days following the munitions dump blast. The findings were disgraceful.

"The catastrophe barely rated a mention on the 'CBS Evening News' and ABC's 'World News Tonight.' NBC's 'Nightly News' gave the story exactly... nothing," said Newsday, which added that there were 11 mentions of the tragedy across all of the three networks' daytime broadcasts.

Of course, it's easy for a newspaper to dump on television news. It's such an inviting target. But newspapers weren't much better on this story.

Consider the Chicago Tribune. During its news meeting the day after the blast, only one person, James Warren, the managing editor for features, wanted to put the explosion on the front page. At the time of the meeting, the confirmed death toll was at least 200 and soon reached beyond 1,000.

"How many Africans have to die for the story to go on Page One," was Warren's point, as related in a column by Don Wycliff, the Tribune's public editor.

Warren noted that the newspaper regularly gives front page play to just one death in the Middle East. "As if to underscore Warren's point," Wycliff wrote, "on that very day, Monday, Jan. 28, the Tribune had a page one story with the headline, 'Woman bomber kills 2 in Jerusalem.' One of the two was herself."

Wycliff (a fellow Poynter Institute fellow) did a service by exposing the inner workings of his paper. He acknowledges he was among those who disagreed with Warren. Thoughtful and deliberate as Wycliff is, he also is wrong in this case.

Wrong, but not alone. The Tribune wasn't the only major paper to play down the Ikeja story. If the most influential papers in the nation -- The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times -- are any indication, and they are, giving the story too little attention was the rule.

A search in Nexis, a news database, shows none of those papers carried a page-one story about the explosion. All of them found other things more important, as did the Tribune. Wycliff listed the seven stories his paper put out front instead of one on the Nigerian disaster:

-- President Bush's refusal to turn over energy task force documents to the General Accounting Office.

-- A decision not to seek the death penalty for a convicted murderer.

-- The indictment of a politically connected Chicago insurance executive on insurance and mail fraud charges.

-- Bush's meeting with visiting Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.

-- Illinois' selection as a test site for a prescription drug program.

-- The governor's reversal of his decision to close an educational facility, following a Tribune story on the students

-- University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson's decision to move to Harvard.

Each of these stories, except the last, Wycliff wrote, "in some way and to some degree implicate the reader as citizen. Each involves an action or decision by a public official that readers need to know about to properly discharge their duties as citizens... effective citizenship must always be first on the list of considerations" as to what goes on page one.

That's certainly debatable. Certainly, basic humanitarian concerns should sometimes trump citizenship matters. Clearly the hundreds dead in Nigeria should have mattered more than they did to American media simply because they are fellow human beings. But even using Wycliff's notion of effective citizenship, the Lagos story still should have rated a front-page spot before some of those chosen by the Tribune.

For reasons of pure self-interest, Nigeria is an important concern to the United States. The West African nation is a major U.S. oil supplier. At the behest of Washington, Nigeria has played a major role in stabilizing its region. Yet, Nigeria has a long way to go before it is really the stable and secure country Washington -- and Nigerians -- need it to be. The explosion was a big setback.

But Nigeria is in Africa. The way the media underplayed the deaths of hundreds of people there sends the message that African life is cheap. As Wycliff's example demonstrates, hundreds of African lives, in the eyes of America and its media, aren't worth just two in Israel.

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


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