THE Central Intelligence Agency is in another ruckus about using journalism as a disguise for its secret agents working abroad. The spooks did this once upon a time, but George Bush put a stop to it when he was director of central intelligence under President Ford in 1976.
Or at least people thought he did. Now it develops that the ban was not total and that the CIA has since ignored it on what one official describes as ''extraordinarily rare'' occasions. And a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations has weighed in with a recommendation that ''a fresh look'' be taken at the rules.
On the one hand, it is argued, a spy working overseas needs cover so that he can introduce himself as being from some organization other than the CIA - from the American embassy, for example, or a newspaper, university, business, religious institution, or other organization with a plausible excuse to be in the particular country. As more occupational fields are ruled out-of-bounds for the CIA, the provision of cover becomes harder.
The counterargument is that when it becomes known, as it inevitably will, that one member of a group is a covert CIA agent, then all members of the group are suspect. This is never helpful to a journalist, and sometimes it's downright dangerous.
Both arguments miss the basic dilemma. The media and the intelligence community need each other. The problem is how to order this relationship in a way that serves the public interest.
Consider the two extremes of a broad spectrum. At one end, there is a wall between intelligence and media as impenetrable as the wall between church and state; neither has anything to do with the other. At the other end, there is an open passageway with people moving freely (but clandestinely) back and forth and occasionally serving both intelligence and media at the same time.
Both extremes are equally undesirable. The public interest demands that the media cover the intelligence community, more so than any other part of the government. The media cannot do this if they are separated from the community. On the other hand, the public deserves assurance that coverage is independent. (This is the same assurance the media owe the public when they cover the White House or Congress or Wall Street or whatever.)
Intelligence officers and journalists are both in the business of gathering information that other people don't want them to know. Both benefit by exchanging notes about what they have learned. Conversations for this purpose go on regularly in Washington and overseas. Some are harmless. Some are useful. Some raise the question of who is using whom. And some start down a slippery slope that leads to a journalist becoming an intelligence agent, perhaps unwitting, but an agent nonetheless.
Example: A journalist is going on a reporting trip through what used to be the Soviet Union. He asks for, and receives, a briefing from the CIA before leaving. Suppose the CIA suggests people for him to see. Suppose the agency suggests questions for him to ask. Suppose the agency suggests changes in his itinerary and offers to reimburse (generously) the additional expenses. Suppose the agency asks for a private, written report (with handsome compensation) on his return. There is a progression here from acceptable through dubious to unacceptable.
These arrangements involve use of a journalist by the CIA, but none involves cover as that term is generally understood. Take the relationship a step further. Suppose a correspondent assigned to a foreign capital is paid a regular retainer by the CIA to provide the agency reports, on assignment or otherwise (this has happened). That is cover. Sometimes the correspondent's home office has known about it; sometimes not. In days gone by, a CIA officer was included in a foreign news bureau and paid by the CIA, with the knowledge and approval of the news bureau's home office. That is cover in the classic sense.
In another example of cover, the CIA has in the past strongly influenced the publishing of a newspaper abroad without being identified as the publisher. The now-defunct Rome Daily American (40 percent of which was owned by the CIA) was one among several. This not only provides cover for intelligence officers while they pursue their espionage; it also provides an outlet for unattributed propaganda and rumors. But it is very expensive and today is probably not thought to be cost-effective.
The media are prone to react with horror to disclosures that the CIA has used journalistic cover, but the horror is disingenuous. The CIA could not do this if journalists were not willing. The practice is contrary to sound public policy and ought not to occur. But ending it is not the CIA's problem; it is journalism's problem. Let the reporters just say no.