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Journalists, diplomats, and spies -- there are some parallels

By EARL W. FOELL / September 16, 1986


SOME comments on the Daniloff case, spies, journalists, summit II, and Soviet-American relations. But first, full disclosure: Your obedient servant has in the distant past talked world affairs with a CIA agent nicknamed, for some unremembered reason, the Chocolate Banana. I have also, in more recent years, dined and talked about the world with both KGB and CIA agents and officials: among the former, the ranking KGB agent in Washington; among the latter, two directors, two deputy directors, and the Africa department chief of the CIA. I neither received nor gave away any secrets, was not even remotely an agent. The lunches were good. They added to my store of information, some of it not before seen in print.

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These facts bear mention because it should be remembered that the professions of journalism, diplomacy, and spying run parallel a good deal of the time and occasionally intersect. If Nicholas Daniloff was doing his job well (and he was), he undoubtedly encountered both CIA and KGB agents during 5 years in Moscow. Some he may have suspected as such; some he may not. But such contact doesn't mean he was an agent himself. For reasons detailed below, there is something approaching 100 percent certainty that he was not.

All three professions are in the business of ferreting out information. All three try to discover the most knowledgeable, shrewd, and dispassionate experts on what is going on in a competitive world and its subdivisions. All three then report their findings. There, differences emerge. Journalists expose their findings (and any mistakes) to readers several times a week. Diplomats needn't worry about disclosure except when a white paper is published a decade or two later. Spies seldom see their reports (and mistakes) in public print.

Of the three careers, two (diplomacy and espionage) sometimes occupy the same body.

To be more precise, spies sometimes have diplomatic cover and work out of embassies. Some American agents used to adopt cover as newspaper correspondents (and did so until the early 1970s). And some American journalists used to engage in work for The Agency, particularly in the 1950s when the Central Intelligence Agency first emerged from the chrysalis left from the wartime Office of Strategic Services, and a World War II outlook still carried over into the cold-war period.

But those days are long gone. The last serious allegations of US journalists-doubling-as-spies were disclosed in news expos'es and congressional hearings in 1976 and '77. Even there, a distinction should be noted: Most of the allegations pointed to an earlier period and often to nonstaff writers (stringers who may have belonged to no one news outfit but sold to many).

Several things probably killed the journalist-spy combination in the US. First, some agents posing as journalists were so clumsy as to make real journalists want to distance themselves from the badly camouflaged replicas. Then, Vietnam eroded the argument for patriotic double duty. Watergate caused journalists questioning politicians' ethics to tighten up their own standards. Correspondents began to pride themselves on rejecting conflicts of interest and paying allegiance only to their own profession and the facts. Then the CIA itself adopted rules forbidding use of journalists as agents. The main bulwark, though, was an almost belligerent attitude that grew up in the journalism trade against such conflicts of interest.