CIA Director John Deutch has done it again. In February he was questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee about whether he would recruit journalists as spies, and he refused to say flatly that his agency would not.
He has repeated that position again in a letter to news executives in response to widespread complaints by the press and electronic media, who fear that his stance puts their foreign correspondents in danger. Deutch wrote that he had no intention of using journalists or news credentials as a cover, but then qualified his position by saying he reserved the right to do so and would consider it under `genuinely extraordinary' circumstances.
Unfortunately, nothing short of a blanket prohibition is likely to work in the dangerous circumstances encountered by reporters traveling and working abroad. The CIA has an unshakable prohibition against using the Peace Corps as a cloak for its undercover missions. That is done for the obvious reason that Peace Corps volunteers would be in grave danger if their host nations or partisans in some foreign conflict suspected them of being spies. According to Quill magazine, a presidential order issued in 1977 prohibited the use of journalists and members of the clergy as spies, but apparently there are loopholes in that restriction.
The news media should be put in that same restricted category as the Peace Corps. Under the best of circumstances, international reporting is a dangerous endeavor. At least 50 journalists died in 1995 while covering conflicts in such places as Algeria and Chechnya; the year before, the number killed was 103.
They die in combat. They are killed by governments intent on silencing them. And they are imprisoned and sometimes killed when they are suspected of being spies.
That is what happened to our colleague, Tampa Tribune reporter Todd Smith, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1989 while on a working vacation in Peru. Shinning Path guerrillas killed him because they didn't believe he was a journalist and thought he was a spy.
On the surface, the desire for a blanket statement from Deutch ruling out the use of journalists and news organizations may strike some as unpatriotic. After all, why shouldn't reporters help their country gather intelligence about a potential foe?
It is not that reporters, editors, publishers and broadcasters are any less patriotic than other Americans. It is a question of national priorities.
The information provided by journalists is vitally important to the health of the nation. U.S. citizens depend upon a steady, reliable supply of news about foreign affairs. That continued relationship far outweighs the significance of whatever intelligence might be uncovered by a reporter working as a spy or a spy pretending to be a journalist.
The government has numerous alternative means of gathering information. But journalists need only slip up once and it will ruin their reputation for independence. After that, they will never be trusted and will be in grave danger in many nations.
American citizens need to know the truth about what is taking place around the world. Often their tax dollars are involved, their international export markets affected, and sometimes their lives and those of their children are on the line. People cannot make sound judgments without solid information from independent news media.