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Abduction, death of Pearl sparks concern about CIA agents impersonating journalists

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Press groups urge agency end support of dangerous policy From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The…

Press groups urge agency end support of dangerous policy

From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 13.

By Phillip Taylor

As the South Asia correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Pearl sought an interview with an Islamic militant as part of his research to link Pakistani extremists with Richard C. Reid, the man arrested in December after taking a shoe bomb aboard a Paris-to-Miami flight.

But it appears that Pearl did not know that the militants he wished to interview already might have thought the journalist worked undercover for the CIA. Pearl disappeared on Jan. 23. A month later, U.S. diplomats confirmed Pearl’s death.

For media rights groups, accusations of CIA impersonations strike deep, causing worry that the U.S. government compromises the independence of reporters in gathering intelligence. Unfortunately for journalists, the issue of journalist impersonations remains a perennial topic of interest.

Regardless, the idea that an agent or law enforcement officer might pose as a reporter remains a bad one, said Abi Wright, a spokeswoman for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“It casts all journalists in a suspicious light,” Wright said. “When stories emerge of this actually happening, it fuels the suspicions and takes away from the perception that journalists are civilian observers.”

For years, journalists believed that the CIA and other government agencies used the profession as a front for intelligence gathering. Indeed, the 1976 Church Committee report, prepared by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, revealed that more than 50 actual journalists served clandestinely as agents during the early part of the Cold War.

Press groups thought the report, which condemned the practice, and subsequent CIA reforms ended the practice. Journalists, however, learned later that the CIA only opted to use the practice more sparingly.

The issue surfaced again in 1996, following the release of a Council on Foreign Relations task force report asking the U.S. government to take a “fresh look” at the limits placed on using reporters as covers.

The House followed with an amendment to an Intelligence Authorization Bill that allowed the CIA or other U.S. agency to use journalists as agents with presidential agreement and notice to Congress, to allow agents to pose as journalists, to use foreign journalists as agents and to accept the voluntary cooperation of journalists to assist the intelligence community.

In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Terry Anderson, a former Associated Press bureau chief held hostage for seven years in Lebanon, said his captors, the Islamic fundamentalist group Hezbollah, thought he moonlighted as an agent.

“To give you an example of the way their minds work: One of the questions put to me quite often was, ‘Give us the name of the CIA agent at the AP who you report to,'” Anderson testified. “I have on other occasions had loaded weapons pointed at my head by screaming militia men shouting, ‘Spy! Spy!'”

Both Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC’s “Nightline,” and Mortimer Zuckerman of U.S. News and World Report urged the Senate to strip the amendment.

“How often the CIA would actually use such cover is beside the point,” Koppel said. “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.”

Zuckerman urged the Senate to include language spelling out an absolute prohibition on agencies using journalists to do such work and asked for a public policy statement that makes it “specifically clear that journalists will have no role in intelligence work.”

Despite the pleas from journalists, Congress approved the 1997 Intelligence Authorization Act complete with the House amendment. President Clinton signed the measure on Oct. 11, 1996.

As for Pearl, media rights groups say they cannot be certain that the terrorists’ belief that the journalist worked for the CIA led to his abduction and death. Pearl’s Jewish heritage has also been cited as a cause.

“There is so much that we don’t know about that story,” Wright said.

“Sure, that was among the accusations against him. But there is so much we don’t know.”

And it’s that confusion that has journalists renewing the call for a ban on allowing the CIA and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies to use journalists.

“One way to ameliorate the possibility of such misconceptions in the future is for the CIA to declare unequivocally as policy that it will not use journalist covers for its agents,” the American Society of Newspaper Editors wrote in a March 21 letter to CIA Director George Tenet.

“This has been done from time to time, but to our knowledge is not now being done. We would urge that the CIA make it official policy that journalist covers will not be used under any circumstances.”

The letter concludes: “A change in this policy and an announcement of such is appropriate to assure the standing of newspaper journalists and, it seems to us, the integrity of the CIA.”