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Loopholes That Allow Journalists to Spy

May 11, 1997|David Wise | David Wise is the author of "Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million."

WASHINGTON — When Frank Smyth, who reported for the Village Voice and CBS News Radio, slipped into Iraq six years ago after the Persian Gulf War, he was blindfolded and interrogated as a suspected CIA agent. After several days in a prison near Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's security officials finally let him go.

Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson was less fortunate. Held hostage for almost seven years by terrorists in Lebanon, he, too, was questioned about his supposed secret links to the spy agency.

The plight of the two journalists was arguably a reaction by their captors to the intelligence agency's longstanding insistence on having a free hand to use the press. Over the years, the CIA has mixed espionage and journalism in two ways. It has recruited real journalists to spy. And it has used press "cover" for its own officers posing as legitimate journalists. All this gives the term "press agent" a whole new meaning.

Since 1977, the CIA's stated policy has been to avoid both practices under normal circumstances. But spies are a slippery bunch by training and profession, and there are glaring loopholes in the rules. Despite the CIA's policy, and the passage of a little-noticed law last year to deal with the problem, the intelligence agency is still free to use journalists as spies or to instruct its own operatives to pretend they are reporters.

Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a friendly one-day hearing on President Bill Clinton's latest nominee to head the agency, George J. Tenet. Unlike W. Anthony Lake, whose nomination foundered after Republican opposition, Tenet is expected to win quick Senate approval.

It might be an appropriate time, therefore, for the new director to review the spy agency's policy on the use of journalists and press cover. An outright ban on either practice would provoke strong opposition from the agency's clandestine arm, the Directorate of Operations--the component of the CIA that Tenet must bring under control if he is to run the agency and not be run by it. Nevertheless, the volatile mixture of journalism and espionage is one that merits the new director's close scrutiny. Put simply, if some journalists are spies, or some spies pose as correspondents, all American journalists become suspect and at risk in various corners of the world.

During the Cold War, the use of journalists and press cover by the CIA was a common practice. Unfortunately, some journalists, perhaps confusing the responsibilities of their craft and patriotism, moonlighted as spies. Or they may have just needed the money.

Nor did the agency hesitate to put a press card in its own hat. After World War II, Henry Pleasants wrote music reviews for the New York Times while serving as the CIA station chief in Bonn. Daniel Schorr has reported that by arrangement with CBS chairman William S. Paley, two CIA agents in Stockholm and in Cairo in the 1950s were given CBS press credentials and, to maintain their cover, worked as on-air correspondents for the network. The Senate intelligence panel headed by the late Frank Church (D-Idaho) reported in 1976 that 50 American journalists were working for the CIA. In the uproar that followed, the CIA, then headed by George Bush, promulgated new guidelines. The Senate committee noted dryly that "fewer than one half" of the journalist-spies would be dismissed under the guidelines.

Then in 1977, Stansfield Turner, the new CIA director, made public the rules that are still in effect. The policy says the CIA will not hire any "accredited" journalists, including stringers, and will not use press cover. But the fine print allows exceptions to the rule with the approval of the CIA director.

Last year, a panel of the Council on Foreign Relations urged the CIA to consider "nonofficial" cover, including press cover, for its spooks. The panel had egg on its face when it later learned that the loophole in the 1977 policy already allowed the agency to do just that. The policy hadn't changed; but nobody had bothered to look at it.

With the issue flaring up again, a number of leading media executives spoke out against the CIA's policy. But John M. Deutch, then CIA director, made it clear he would not rule out the use of journalists or clergy if there were "an extreme threat to the nation." Tom Johnson, president of CNN, urged Bill Richardson, then a New Mexico Democrat and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to introduce legislation to ban the practice.

That law, Section 309 of the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal 1997, attracted little attention. It falls short of a total ban. The law states that it is "the policy of the United States" to bar the use of journalists by intelligence agencies. But the law, like the CIA's own rules, allows for an exception. The director of the CIA or the president can waive the rules.

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