Foreign journalists/spies: why the fuss?

There is commotion in the State Department and in Congress about an FBI report stating that foreign governments are using journalists who cover the department to also spy on it. We are used to arguments about whether the CIA ought to use American correspondents abroad to spy on foreign governments. Judging from the reaction at State and on Capitol Hill, it is a shock to discover that other intelligence services are doing the same thing to us.

All intelligence agencies use the same methods. No government - neither US nor Russian nor any other - sends its spies abroad identified as such. They would immediately be ostracized.

Therefore, spies working abroad are invariably disguised, usually as diplomats or other non-intelligence-related government officials, but sometimes as business people, clergy, professors, journalists, or other persons having legitimate reasons for asking intrusive questions.

For intelligence agencies, journalists are among the preferred covers. The jobs of journalist and spy are not very different. Each wants to find out something that government, whether in Washington, Moscow, or elsewhere, doesn't want him to know. For years, it has been assumed that the Tass bureau in Washington is a branch office of the Russian SVRR (successor to the Soviet Union's KGB).

For years, also, the CIA has tried to recruit American correspondents to do its work abroad. Sometimes it has been successful; sometimes not. Congress has involved itself from time to time. Once it banned any CIA use of journalists. Then the director of central intelligence was authorized to make exceptions on extraordinary occasions. Debating a law misses the point. It's OK for the CIA to recruit - or try to recruit - journalists. It's not OK for journalists to allow themselves to be recruited, just as it's not OK for journalists to work secretly for special interest groups. Another problem is that if one spy/journalist is exposed, all legitimate journalists are suspected.

The problem is complicated by the symbiotic relationship between spies and journalists. Each can help the other. Many journalists and CIA station chiefs abroad swap information. Each is a source for the other. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the relationship stops at arm's length and no money or other thing of value changes hands.

Now the problem is raising its head in the State Department press corps. Out of 523 journalists with department press credentials, 56 represent foreign media. So what if some of these are spies? It gives the State Department an opportunity to spin the news directly to the SVRR. This assumes, of course, that the department's real secrets are not going to be left lying around for anybody, spy or not, to pick up. So far as access to classified information is concerned, nobody is supposed to get it, neither Tass nor the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, because of the fuss about possible spies, legitimate journalists work under restrictions imposed in the name of security. The most onerous of these is that you are always being escorted, always have the feeling that you are being watched, always signing in or out or showing an identity badge. The reaction of David Carpenter, the State Department's assistant secretary for diplomatic security, to the FBI's media/spy alert was to say, "If it was within my power, I would not have any press in the building." There have no doubt been secretaries of state (even presidents) who wished the same thing. Let the press pick up prepared statements from a kiosk on the sidewalk.

This raises the question, of course, as to how, then, anybody could find out what was going on in the building. The implication of Mr. Carpenter's statement is that he would just as soon nobody found out.

This is what is so bad, perhaps ultimately tragic, about the security mania that now reigns in Washington. It is driven by fear of terrorism, but fear of espionage is a part of it. It is destroying the atmosphere of easy-going openness that used to characterize the American government. The US has been promoting this openness under the name of transparency in foreign governments from Russia and China to North Korea and Iraq. We need it at home, too.

There is no question that we should take prudent precautions. But if the price of security is that we become like those who are trying to harm us, then we will have lost what we were trying to protect. And that will be a pity.

*Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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