EVER since there's been a Central Intelligence Agency, it has wanted to use journalism as a cover for its activities. And journalists have decried the notion.
From its creation until 1977, CIA policy allowed the use of journalistic cover and, unfortunately, news organizations occasionally acquiesced, especially in the turbulent 1950s. When post-Watergate congressional investigations uncovered the practice, journalists and the public were outraged. A new policy issued in 1977 supposedly barred the practice.
Recently, however, it has come out that the agency retained the right to use journalistic cover in extraordinary circumstances. And according to Director of Central Intelligence John Deutsch, it has availed itself of those exceptions on one or two occasions.
Recently a Council on Foreign Relations panel recommended doing away with the 1977 ban. In hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, Mr. Deutsch unfortunately refused to rule out the practice.
The CIA's reasoning is easy to understand. Journalists have legitimate reasons for being overseas. They go lots of places and ask lots of embarrassing questions. They meet and interview important men and women.
Well-intentioned people often ask: If it's OK for CIA agents to pose as members of other professions, why should journalists be exempt? And if the secret services of other countries, including some American allies, use journalistic cover, why shouldn't the CIA be allowed to do the same?
The very reasons journalism would make such good cover for spies are the reasons the CIA shouldn't have that right. American journalists do not represent their government; they represent their readers. Their job is to gather all the information they can in a legal and overt fashion and report it to the public at large.
Often this means trying to ferret out information governments want to cover up. At other times, especially in wars and riots, it means journalists must put themselves in dangerous situations. Businessmen do not search for mass graves in Bosnia; journalists do. Almost every American journalist arrested abroad in the course of his or her professional duties in the past 50 years has been accused of spying for the CIA. It happened to Terry Anderson in Lebanon. It happened to the CBS News crew captured by Iraq during the Gulf war. It happened to the Monitor's David Rohde last fall in Bosnia. Happily, those were all released. Many others have been killed.
It is imperative that US journalists have the protection of an official policy that US spies do not pose as reporters. US security benefits most when the best American journalists abroad can do their job without hindrance. Government analysts are welcome to read their reports - that information is available to everyone.