The issue surfaced recently when a report from the independent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) recommended that the CIA take "a fresh look . . . at limits on the use of non-official 'covers' for hiding and protecting those involved in clandestine activities."
The idea that journalists, clergy and Peace Corps volunteers should be reconsidered as 'covers' for agents, decades after such action was prohibited, sparked a firestorm of protest.
The 1977 directive regulating such action, however, is not absolute. It includes an exemption allowing such cover to be used, but only at the discretion of the director of Central Intelligence, a fact few seemed to have remembered.
"This regulation was signed in 1977 by me," former CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner told E&P. "Shortly thereafter, I described it in full detail to the ASNE [American Society of Newspaper Editors].
"It's not a secret," he said of the exception clause. "It has not been a secret for 19 years.
"Therefore, we've got a flap over nothing now," Turner said.
Former CIA director Robert Gates told the Associated Press that he believed the exemption was granted once or twice over the past 15 years.
The genesis of this rule began with the Senate's Church Committee, which, for about 18 months in 1975 and 1976, investigated CIA activity.
Among the committee's findings was the estimation that 50 American journalists secretly worked for the CIA from 1952 to 1976, according to University of Georgia professor Loch K. Johnson, who details the CIA-media relationship in his book, America's Secret Power: The CIA in a Democratic Society.
Nearly all of those journalists counted in the Church report likely were active during the 1950s, Johnson told E&P.
"Back in the fifties, a lot of journalists thought it was their patriotic duty," he said, explaining that the relationship likely started to change "when the frequency of charges against American journalists became more evident," particularly in emerging Third World nations.
In response to the Church Committee's findings, then-CIA director George Bush issued a directive in 1976 limiting such activity.
Bush's policy was strengthened further by Turner, his successor, but the November 1977 regulations included a clearly stated addendum that exceptions to the rule could be made with the specific approval of the director of the CIA.
Johnson explained in his book that the 1977 policy "defined more precisely what types of journalists would be off limits to CIA recruitment efforts . . . by explicitly adding stringers and foreign nationals accredited by a U.S. media organization."
The Turner directive also "promised to use nonjournalistic staff members of U.S. media organizations (cameramen, et al.) only with the 'specific, express approval of senior management in the organization concerned,' " and "the CIA would no longer use the credentials of real U.S. media outlets for purposes of intelligence," Johnson explained.
There was considerable outcry, at the time, from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the ASNE over the "escape hatch," and both groups called for an absolute ban, he noted.
Former CIA director Turner, however, said the rule protects the rights of the media, because the action is allowed only in "extraordinary circumstances."
"I say that it shows the interests of the media are being well protected if people are not running in every day and saying they want to use" this method, Turner said of the apparent lack of knowledge about the exception.
The alternative, to shut off the use of media personnel completely, did not appeal to Turner.
During his tenure, Turner said he approved the technique once, while trying to secure the release of the American hostages in Iran.
"We knew of a journalist we thought had information, but we didn't use him. I granted the authority. It
wasn't exercised," Turner said, adding that he would "hate to see Americans sit in prison when they could be helped" by a journalist.
That belief apparently still holds true for the current CIA director, John M. Deutch, who, at a recent hearing held by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that the Agency would "consider the use of a journalist in an intelligence operation" in the case of "unique and special threats to national security."
According to the Associated Press, Deutch told the committee that such special cases might occur when terrorists are holding Americans hostage and a journalist can attain "unique access," or if a reporter could gain "access to a nation or a group who had an ability to use weapons of mass destruction against the U.S."
Now, as in 1977, ASNE and SPJ are vehemently opposed to the CIA using such cover.
ASNE "has been on the record for many years as opposed to this. It's absolutely unnecessary and counterproductive to the interests of the United States," said association counsel Richard M. Schmidt Jr. of Cohn & Marks in Washington.
"It casts doubt on the credibility of journalists throughout the world and in the U.S., and they do not need it," he said.
Schmidt did not know specific examples of journalists who were approached by CIA agents, but he said he did hear "from time to time that people were approached to see if they would function as information gatherers for the CIA."
Of the exception, Schmidt said, "I just don't see why they need it. There are plenty of other things they can do."
ASNE president William B. Ketter sent a letter to CIA director Deutch protesting the recruiting of journalists for intelligence gathering and agents posing as correspondents, and he urged the CIA to end these actions.
"Both practices are contrary to the principle of an independent American press, and they put the lives of our foreign correspondents at serious risk," Ketter wrote.
"There can be no exceptions," he added, "even under what you or others in the security community might feel are extraordinarily rare circumstances."
SPJ denounced the "loophole" and passed an executive committee resolution condemning the practice, and its president wrote to both Deutch and President Clinton, urging them to prohibit the practice altogether.
"Under no circumstances, not even extreme ones, should a U.S. intelligence officer be allowed to pose as a journalist, nor should an American journalist be recruited as cover for an intelligence operation," SPJ president G. Kelly Hawes remarked.
"The public shouldn't have to fear speaking to the press, and journalists shouldn't have to fear for their safety, but by allowing this loophole to exist for the CIA, these are the end results," noted Hawes, metro editor of the Muncie (Ind.) Star.
Ever since the issue re-emerged, many newspapers and columnists have editorialized against the practice.
Miami Herald editor Jim Hampton, for example, blasted the Council on Foreign Relations recommendation.
Hampton wrote in a column that the practice would be "infinitely more harmful to reporters and religious workers, and to American interests, than helpful to the CIA."
"It would place reporters and clergy doing humanitarian work in even greater physical danger than they already face in certain countries," Hampton wrote, noting that it also "would taint the credibility . . . of reporting that American journalists may have risked their lives to pursue."
Hampton called the CFR report "colossal folly ? but not as colossal as its implementation would be."
In a Washington Post op-ed piece defending the CFR's recommendations, project director Richard N. Haass, the report's principal author, pointed out that, "The question is whether precluding the use of such covers is a luxury the United States can still afford.
"In the post-Cold War world, the greatest threats are posed by terrorists, drug cartels, criminal organizations and rouge states," Haass wrote. "Learning about and dealing with these threats is often achieved best by clandestine means.
"Moreover, posting intelligence officers to embassies is impossible in the absence of diplomatic relations, and of little use when the target is someone other than a government official," he continued.
Haass wrote that using businessmen and academics as covers may not be enough to pick up the slack, and called the notion that people could be tainted or endangered by lifting the ban "dubious."
"Even with the ban," Haass added, "nothing the U.S. government can do or say can convince others that no American journalist or clergyman or Peace Corps volunteer is a spy, especially as other countries place no such limits on themselves."
University of Georgia professor Johnson said he believes the current policy is a sound one that has worked for years and he pointed out that it has been endorsed by one administration after another. "To step back and give the CIA its due here, it must be awfully frustrating to find places to hide overseas," he said. "Wouldn't it be nice to have a journalistic cover? The temptation has to be resisted.
"The absolute key point here is the requirement of a report to the [congressional] oversight committee for any waiver," Johnson added, noting that without that, the policy would be "more unsettling."
"There is always the worry that people won't honor that understanding, but it looks as though it's worked so far," he said.
For the past 19 years, the CIA has permitted its agents to pose as reporters and to use media personnel for CIA: OK To Use Foreign Journalists
IN LATE 1977, in a follow-up to the rule regarding the CIA's use of U.S. media, the American Society of Newspaper Editors passed a resolution calling upon the agency to include prohibiting the use of foreign journalists (E&P, Jan. 14, 1978, p. 14).
In his reply to then-ASNE president and St. Petersburg Times editor Eugene C. Patterson, then-CIA director Stansfield Turner explained that the agency was willing to restrict its operations by not using U.S. journalists because it respected their special constitutional status.
As to foreign journalists, Turner noted that the agency found no legal barriers to justify hampering its operation by not working with foreign media.
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee in early January 1978, Patterson had criticized the policy.
"On the one hand, our government and our press stand for a belief in expression free of government influence everywhere," Patterson testified. "On the other, the intelligence agency of the United States government reserves the right to subvert journalists anywhere abroad, and its former agents express pride at having done so.
"If that is not unilateral disarmament in the war of ideas, the American eagle flies backward," Patterson stated.
?(Current CIA director, John M. Deutch, at a recent hearing held by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that the Agency would "consider the use of a journalist in an intelligence operation" in the case of "unique and special threats to national security.") [Photo & Caption]
?(Former CIA director Robert Gates told the Associated Press that he believed the exemption was granted once or twice over the past 15 years.) [Photo & Caption]
By: Debra Gersh Hernandez THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE Agency apparently is so good at keeping secrets that few people realized that for the past 19 years, agents have been allowed to pose as journalists and use media personnel for intelligence gathering, despite belief to the contrary.