Reporters and the CIA
by Kate Houghton
American journalists have long been bitterly opposed to the recruitment of reporters by U.S. intelligence agencies, and the fraudulent use of journalism credentials by intelligence operatives. Since the mid-1970s, journalists and others-including some of the nation's top foreign policy-makers-believed that the CIA could no longer recruit reporters as spies. They shared a widespread but inaccurate assumption that the U.S. government had banned such objectionable practices as part of a package of reforms revamping codes of conduct for covert intelligence operations adopted in response to recommendations of the 1976 Church Committee report. In its investigation of U.S. foreign and military intelligence operations, the committee-the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho)-found that more than 50 American journalists had worked clandestinely as CIA agents during the Cold War era. The committee's final report strongly condemned this practice and unequivocally called on the intelligence community to "permit American journalists and news organizations to pursue their work without jeopardizing their credibility in the eyes of the world through covert use of them."
In fact, during the subsequent two decades, the CIA merely curtailed the practice.
The issue was spotlighted anew in the spring of 1996 by the release of a Council on Foreign Relations task force report on U.S. intelligence-gathering policies and practices-which in turn inadvertently prompted the passage of the first U.S. law explicitly permitting the practice. Ironically, many of the members of Congress who supported the new statute thought they were effectively prohibiting the covert use of journalists by the CIA.
The episode could be written off as yet another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences-were the consequences not so potentially calamitous. The perception that American journalists are agents of the U.S. government compromises their professional integrity, impedes their ability to function in many parts of the world, and often puts their lives in jeopardy. Yet the CIA's endorsement of the new law, coupled with the agency's admission that it reserves the right to use this practice as an avenue for clandestine information-gathering, can only magnify these suspicions. Thus, CPJ and other leading journalism and press freedom organizations are pressing for an unambiguous statutory prohibition of all uses of journalists and journalism credentials by U.S. intelligence agencies. A CPJ task force co-chaired by Terry Anderson and Walter Cronkite is spearheading the fight.
IN FEBRUARY 1996, an independent task force of the Council on Foreign Relations led by Richard Haass, a former senior director for Near East and South Asian Affairs of the National Security Council in the Bush administration, proposed taking a "fresh look at limits on the use of non-official 'covers' for hiding and protecting those involved in clandestine activities." Haass later publicly expanded on this point, challenging what he characterized as the prohibition on the use of journalists as undercover intelligence agents. The outcry among journalists-including many who are members of the Council of Foreign Relations-led council president Leslie Gelb to distance himself and the council from the task force and its recommendations.
The reaction to the controversy among U.S. intelligence professionals, however, was quite different-and far more disturbing to journalists. John Deutch, director of Central Intelligence, appeared before Congress and said there was no need to change U.S. policy as Haass had advocated, since the CIA already had the power to use U.S. reporters as spies. Under the terms of the guidelines adopted after the Church Commission report, the CIA director retained the right to approve such recruitment if he judged it necessary, Deutch explained. Deutch received public support for his interpretation of the CIA's prerogative from Stansfield Turner, the CIA chief in the Carter administration. Speaking to a gathering of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Turner revealed that he had authorized the use of journalists in intelligence operations three times during his tenure as CIA director.
Journalists, shocked to hear that a practice most thought had been banned was in fact still permitted, were not mollified by Deutch's assurances that the CIA "will not use journalists American journalists, except under, very, very rare circumstances." Louis Boccardi, president of the Associated Press, and Tom Johnson, president of CNN, met with Deutch and asked him to pledge publicly that he would never call on journalists to gather information clandestinely for U.S. intelligence services. Boccardi pointed to the case of Terry Anderson, who had been taken hostage by the Hezbollah in Lebanon while a foreign correspondent for Associated Press on the false accusation of information-gathering for the CIA and held for almost eight years. And Johnson noted that a CNN crew assistant in Baghdad had been tortured by Iraqi security forces seeking to extract a confession of his and CNN's purported collaboration with the CIA. "The CIA should say it's not going to use the cover of journalism for the work that is does," Boccardi declared before the meeting. "They have a function, we have a function, and I think mixing them exposes our people all over the world to a level of danger that's extremely worrisome."
In response, Deutch refused to reject the practice categorically. "As Director of Central Intelligence," he said he told Boccardi and Johnson, "I must be in a position to assure the president and the members of his National Security Council and this country that there will never come a time when the United States cannot ask a willing citizen to assist in combating an extreme threat to the nation."
Amidst this controversy, then-Congressman William B. Richardson of New Mexico proposed an amendment to the pending intelligence services appropriations bill that would ban the use of reporters for U.S. news organizations in covert intelligence operations unless the president gave written authorization to the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees certifying that a particular exception to the policy was justified by "overriding national security concerns."
Richardson said he hoped to "ensure that neither the independence guaranteed to the press by the Constitution nor the lives of journalists are endangered by blurring the distinction between reporters as commentators on government and reporters as instruments of government."
While Richardson's initial intent may have been to put an end to the CIA's covert use of journalists, in subsequent debate he agreed to add language to his amendment stating that the ban would not preclude "voluntary cooperation with the United States Intelligence Community [sic]." Given that any such collaboration in a democracy would presumably never be compulsory, this caveat effectively rendered the other restrictions meaningless.
Passed overwhelmingly in a 417-to-6 House vote, the Richardson amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997 (H.R. 3259) stated:
(A) Policy-It is the policy of the United States that an element of the Intelligence community may not be used as an agent or asset for the purposes of collecting intelligence any individual who-1) is authorized by contract or by the issuance of press credentials to represent himself or herself, either in the United States, or abroad, as a correspondent of a United States news media organization; or (2) is officially recognized by a foreign government as a representative of a United States media organization.
(B) Waiver-The President may waive subsection (a) in the case of an individual if the President certifies in writing that the waiver is necessary to address the overriding national security interest of the United States. The certification shall be made to the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives and the Select Committee on Intelligence of the Senate.
(C) Voluntary Cooperation-Subsection (a) shall not be construed to prohibit the voluntary cooperation of any person who is aware that the cooperation is being provided to an element of the United States Intelligence Community.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence convened a hearing on July 17 to discuss the use of journalists in CIA operations. Terry Anderson, a CPJ board member and former AP Bureau Chief in Lebanon; Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC's "Nightline"; and Mortimer B. Zuckerman, chairman and editor in chief of U.S. News and World Report and chairman and co-publisher of The Daily News, testified before the Intelligence Committee about the threats that this policy represented-to the physical safety and professional integrity of members of the press, and to the very principles of press freedom. All three stated their absolute opposition to the use of journalists in CIA operations and demanded on behalf of their colleagues around the world that an absolute and unalterable ban be set in place. In his testimony, Anderson told of the life-threatening dangers for a journalist in an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. "I have been accused of being a spy, not just on the occasion of my captivity, but on other occasions in various places. I was told by a number of people that I was on a list of CIA agents kept by the fundamentalist Shiites who captured me. That is a perception that is very difficult to disprove. It's hard to argue with them. They are very suspicious people."
"The damage has already been done," continued Anderson, "I believe, most prominently by Director Deutch's acknowledgment that there were exceptions to the general rule and that such things have happened in the past. So, the best thing we can do is try to repair the damage by a greater prohibition, without exceptions. We are talking about a real danger; this is not imaginary. A statement of formal exception-no matter how hedged or restricted-would simply be an acknowledgment to those who suspect us of being spies that 'Yes, on occasion, you're right.'"
Ted Koppel cautioned the Intelligence Committee of the implications and limitations of this new policy. "If the CIA must, on occasion, use the role of an American journalist to conceal one of its operatives and to protect the greater national interest, it will do so, regardless of what is decided by Congress. But let that continue to be in the knowledge that a free press is being endangered and that American law is being broken," he said. "How often the CIA would actually use such cover is beside the point," he stressed. "The relevant question is how often it would be assumed, both at home and abroad, that American reporters are working with a second, secret agenda."
LEGITIMATE REPORTERS RISK serious repercussions when they work under suspicion of being intelligence operatives. In a July letter of protest sent to all members of the U.S. Senate, CPJ Chair Kati Marton urged them to support a "complete and unalterable ban on the use of journalists as intelligence operatives, and on the fraudulent use of journalistic credentials and agency affiliation as cover for espionage activities." Marton included in the letter the story of her parents' 1955 arrest in Hungary on false charges of affiliation with the CIA. Her parents, Hungarian nationals and correspondents for the Associated Press and United Press International, were imprisoned for reporting the truth to the rest of the world about the Stalinization of their country. Sentenced to 25 years in prison on groundless charges, they were forced to leave their young daughter to the care of strangers until their case was brought to international attention almost two years later. "My parents' arrest has had an unlimited impact on my work," said Marton. "I'm drawn to debunking oppression. I started out in a part of the world where, if you strayed from imposed views you lost your job or your life or both. In my parents' case it was a loss of freedom." She concluded by underscoring that "Journalists like my parents and Terry Anderson know from their own personal experience that a policy which permits the use of journalists in intelligence operations jeopardizes the safety of all journalists working in dangerous and repressive countries."
Senator Robert Kerrey, Vice-Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, replied to Marton's letter on Aug. 21, stating that "there are imaginable scenarios where only a member of the press, clergy, or the Peace Corps would have the access necessary to prevent the loss of life," and that the CIA should have access to the intelligence gathering potential of all professions if and when it is deemed necessary for national security. "When lives are at risk or vital interests are at risk, I don't see why any American patriot should be forbidden to cooperate with an American intelligence agency," Kerrey continued. Another Democratic Senator, John Kerry of Massachusetts, also expressed opposition to the flat ban that Richardson had proposed, but was more concerned about the impact on journalists of continued public discussion of the issue. As he put it, "if they weren't tainted before, they sure as hell will be tainted afterwards."
Senate Bill 1718, the Senate's version of the intelligence authorization act, contained no language on the issue of the CIA's use of journalists as spies. The conference committee, however, rolled in the House amendment virtually verbatim, but with one critical change: Not just the president, but the CIA director as well, could waive the ban on the use of journalists in covert operations by writing to the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees. This is the version of the bill that became law on Oct. 11, 1996, with President Clinton's signing of the 1997 Intelligence Authorization Act.
IN HER LETTER TO THE SENATE, Kati Marton warned that "The disturbing acknowledgment that the CIA has waived restrictions on the use of journalistic credentials in intelligence-gathering operations in the past and wishes to retain the right to do so again, may have already led some foreign leaders to believe that the CIA and leading U.S. policy-makers are actively urging an end to official constraints on the use of journalists for espionage."
The repercussions of this recent change in U.S. policy have already begun to inform the intelligence practices of other nations. The Russian daily Izvestiya published an article on Dec. 7, 1996, reporting that Russia's Federal Security Service planned to create a new department of intelligence operations to manipulate the news coverage of security issues, resulting from its failure to control public opinion during the Chechen war. On Dec. 20, The Moscow Times ran an article illustrating the dangers for Russian journalists already engendered by this policy. An unnamed source was quoted saying that "the FSB (Federal Security Service) is putting correspondents in danger especially in Chechnya. [They] are already convinced that we are all spies, without the FSB advertising that they use journalists as sources for their operations."
"There is no essential difference between the work of a spy and a journalist; both collect information in the same way-just the end consumers are different," said Maj. Gen. Yury Kobaldze of Russia's SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service. "Journalists make the best spies; they have more freedom of access than diplomats. The Americans' moral stand on not using journalists is artificial, and not a little duplicitous."
Looking beyond the immediate threats to the lives of journalists, the threat this law poses to the integrity of journalism is profound. In the United States, the First Amendment protects the rights of the press to practice its craft without fear or favor from the government. If American journalists become agents of government rather than its critics, as they already are in so many countries, the practice will have a corrosive effect on our democracy. "Whatever gains may be justified and whatever grounds may be used to justify intelligence work by the press, in whatever form it may take, it seems to me that these gains must still be assessed in the context of what they do to the press as an institution in a free society," Zuckerman testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. "To be the instrument of government rather than a constitutional check on government would undermine the good that independent journalism does for an open society."
Kate Houghton has been board liaison and assistant to the executive director of CPJ since July 1996. She has a bachelor's degree in history from New York University.
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