My Spy Story

Original article can be found here.

WASHINGTON – After several days in a prison near Baghdad in 1991, I was told “they” wanted to see me. Blindfolded, I was led into a room where, judging from the voices, there were at least half a dozen men. For days, I had heard and sometimes watched as guards beat and tortured Iraqi prisoners.

The translator asked what my “real job” was. “I’m a reporter” for The Village Voice and CBS News Radio, I said. He translated my response in Arabic. I heard the reply from a man whose voice sounded older and less sympathetic. “You’re lying,” the translator echoed in English. “Tell us about your relationship with the C.I.A.” I had none.
The interrogation lasted two hours. I was not abused. The Iraqis found me guilty of entering their country without a visa: I had admitted sneaking in from Syria after the Persian Gulf war with Kurdish guerrillas who wanted to overthrow President Saddam Hussein. As for the charge of being a C.I.A. agent, I remained “under suspicion,” I was told. A week later, Iraq let me leave.

Last week, a blue-ribbon panel, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed repealing a 19-year policy that prevents C.I.A. agents from posing as representatives of the working press.

Part of the panel’s rationale is that the C.I.A.’s use of American embassies as a cover won’t wash any longer. Skeptical foreign officials, are asking why an embassy that issues relatively few visas has so many consular officials, why the political section has doubled in size or whether that new department is really doing economic research.

The panel director, Richard N. Haass, a former member of the National Security Council, asks whether precluding the use of journalism as a cover “is a luxury the United States can still afford.” (Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, disagrees with the proposal.)

The C.I.A. supposedly terminated the practice in 1977, but last month the agency admitted that the practice has continued–on extraordinarily rare occasions, it says.

If the Iraqis had been aware of this during the war, any of the 47or so journalists picked up and held by authorities might not have come back. (One didn’t: Gad Gross, a freelance photographer, was executed minutes after soldiers captured him.)

If agents began regularly passing themselves off as reporters again, governments around the globe could easily accuse almost any American reporter of being a C.I.A. plant. The burden of proof would fall on the journalist to demonstrate that he or she is not a spy.

The council’s proposal, if adopted, would make it easy for any hostile official who fears inquiries by the foreign press to accuse reporters of being spies. The most probing reporters may well be denied entry or expelled.
The council’s panel concluded that if spooks could get press credentials, the C.I.A. would be more effective. But many academics and policy makers seem to agree that the information available in the media is often as good as, if not better than, that found in classified C.I.A. documents. Aren’t many offices in the Pentagon and elsewhere always tuned to CNN?

Allowing C.I.A. agents to pose as journalists not only needlessly puts reporters at risk but also undermines their ability to report foreign news properly or at all, limiting the information available to policy makers and the public. Instead of rehabilitating this passé cold war practice, the C.I.A. should be ordered to end it for real.