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Letter to U.S Senate regarding proposed 1997 Intelligence Authorization Act (Senate Bill 1718)

29 July 1996

Dear Senator:

I have worked as a journalist for more than two decades, reporting for several major U.S. news organizations from the United States, Europe and the Far East, and I currently chair the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that responds to attacks against press freedom around the world.

I am writing to express our profound concern about the proposed 1997 Intelligence Authorization Act (Senate Bill 1718), which, as reported out of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, would leave intact present U.S. policy permitting the use of journalists and journalists’ credentials by U.S. intelligence agencies. The members of the board of directors of CPJ strongly oppose the recruitment of journalists by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, and the fraudulent use of journalists' credentials by intelligence agents.

Such practices can and will endanger the lives of U.S. correspondents and other journalists around the world, while cutting off vital sources of information essential to the assessment and formulation of U.S. foreign policy. Further, the covert use of journalists in official intelligence-gathering operations would erode a cornerstone of our democracy: the constitutionally guaranteed status of the free press as an institution wholly independent of government.

This dispute may seem fundamentally philosophical, but I assure you that its consequences are quite real. I know. I have experienced first-hand the damage to the lives of journalists who have been unjustly charged with espionage.

In 1955, when I was a young girl in Budapest, my parents, both Hungarian citizens, and Associated Press and United Press International wire-service correspondents respectively, were tried, convicted and imprisoned on false charges of being CIA agents. They were sentenced to 25 years in prison, but were released in 1956, shortly before the Hungarian Revolution. My parents were never recruited by the CIA-- in fact, to their knowledge, they had never even met a CIA agent. For almost two years, I did not even know where my parents were. My mother and father were arrested for simply doing their jobs as good reporters: writing the truth about Communist-controlled Hungary in the 1950s. Since then, I've always felt that the safeguarding of press freedom was my special mission.

You will surely recall that Terry Anderson, another of our board members, and former Middle East bureau chief for the Associated Press, was held hostage for seven years by terrorists who accused him of working for the CIA. As Terry pointed out in his testimony at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, "We are talking about a real danger. This is not imaginary. Journalists are put in danger by the perception they are connected to intelligence agencies." More recently, to cite just one of scores of such cases, Pulitzer Prize-winners Roy Gutman of Newsday and John Burns of The New York Times had their lives threatened by Bosnian Serb militia leaders who asserted that Gutman and Burns were U.S. intelligence agents. Gutman sued in Yugoslavian courts to clear his name. The mere public suggestion that he was connected to U.S. intelligence services has made it impossible for him to work safely in his region of experience and expertise. For both Terry and Roy, it would have been immensely helpful if they had at least been able to accurately assert that the use of U.S. journalists by the CIA was prohibited by U.S. law.

As Ted Koppel stated in his testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: "How often the CIA would actually use such cover is beside the point. 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." This perception creates an extraordinarily dangerous working environment for journalists. This is especially true in countries which tend to be hostile to U.S. interests and U.S. journalists.

As you know, virtually all serious journalists and news media organizations reject the proposition that our profession should be among the various "cover" options available to U.S. intelligence operatives. The World Press Freedom Committee, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Radio-Television News Directors Association and the North American National Broadcasters Association are among the organizations that have stated their opposition to this amendment. Such a policy would cast a cloud of suspicion over all American correspondents overseas, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to do their jobs. 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.

In the House of Representatives, amendment 311 to the 1997 Intelligence Authorization Act (HR 3259) --passed on May 22 in a 417-6 vote-- took a positive first step by requiring a written presidential waiver for any authorization of the use of journalists in intelligence operations. However, even that amendment was not nearly strict enough.

First, it applied only to journalists accredited by “a United States media organization,” in effect permitting CIA recruitment of unaffiliated freelance journalists and of all journalists working for news organizations headquartered outside the United States. (It should be noted that many international news agencies, such as Reuters, are critical providers of information to the U.S. public.)

Second, it explicitly permitted the “voluntary cooperation" of journalists with U.S. intelligence agencies. As involuntary “cooperation” is presumably never an alternative in a free society, this caveat renders meaningless any prohibition on the use of journalists by intelligence agencies.

Finally, it would leave under a pall of suspicion the many local journalists in repressive or conflict-ridden societies who cover human rights issues and national security affairs, and who are often accused of working for foreign intelligence services. In the past ten years, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented 456 job-related deaths of journalists in 61 countries. Most of these deaths--more than 300--were deliberate political assassinations. Any policy initiative that would potentially add to this terrible toll should be vigorously opposed.

CPJ's concern transcends the very real issue of the safety of individual journalists. The covert use of journalists as government spies, and the use of fraudulently obtained journalism credentials by government spies, would fatally compromise not just the credibility of the U.S. press, but the very integrity of our democracy. As Mort Zuckerman noted in his testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, "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."

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. We strongly urge that the 1997 Intelligence Authorization Act (Senate Bill 1718) be amended to include 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. I welcome your comments.


Kati Marton
Chair, Committee to Protect Journalists

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