WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- I was appalled to discover the Central Intelligence Agency can secretly recruit journalists and clergy as spies. People all over the planet already have enough reasons to hate us journalists. Why add another one?
Too many people have too hard of a time telling the difference between journalists and spies as it is: our jobs are so similar.
Both are assigned to get information the government or the organization that is being reported on or spied on doesn't want them to know.
Of course, there are significant differences. The sort of information that can get you a Pulitzer Prize in this country can get you shot in someone else's. That is why, if we are to spread the blessings of liberty with any success, we must be scrupulous in the way we distinguish independent journalists from government employers.
That's not an easy distinction for much of the world to grasp. Freedom of the press, like brokered political conventions or the designated hitter, is a concept that is not easily understood by those who did not grow up with it.
Consider the difficulty I had trying to explain my role to some university intellectuals in Tanzania while I was traveling around Africa as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the mid-1970s.
"Is your newspaper a government newspaper or a party newspaper?" one professor asked. He appeared to be genuinely curious.
Neither, I said. It is a big independent newspaper.
"Big?" said the other. "It is a government newspaper?"
No, I said. It is a big private newspaper.
"But what party publishes it?"
Parties don't publish major newspapers in America. In America, I explained, quoting A.J. Liebling, the press is free to whoever owns one.
"But what party do the owners of your newspaper belong to," one said.
That's not supposed to matter, I said. The only bias that is supposed to matter is the bias in favor of a good story.
They looked at me incredulously. I have grown accustomed to that look from Americans. How, I wondered, could I ever persuade Tanzanians that America's press was not beholden to some higher political power when I could not always persuade my fellow Americans?
After all, I already had become accustomed to assuming that any "journalist" was a spy (and, at the same time, an unofficial government spokesperson) if he or she carried credentials from the Soviet Union, mainland China or any similar totalitarian regime.
Regulations passed in 1977 in the wake of Watergate prohibit the practice of using journalists as spies for the United States. But current CIA Director John M. Deutch revealed a loophole during recent Senate hearings. That loophole allows the CIA to secretly waive the regulations in "extraordinarily rare" circumstances and use journalistic or media cover for intelligence activities.
It's a terrible idea. Even with Senate oversight, the practice of recruiting journalists or clergy casts a dangerous shadow of suspicion over all American journalists who operate overseas.
Yet, Mr. Deutch defended the practice. Since 1977, he said, according to the Associated Press, the agency has been operating under rules that "will not use journalists except under -- American journalists -- except under very, very rare circumstances."
How, asked Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would he define those "rare circumstances?"
Mr. Deutch offered two hypothetical examples: "One would be where you had a journalist involved in a situation where terrorists were holding U.S. hostages . . . journalists might have tremendously unique access in such a situation . . . or where there was a particular access to a nation or a group who had an ability to use weapons of mass destruction against the U.S."
Well, you have to wonder how much access journalists will have, once outlaw governments or terrorist groups get the idea that the journalist may very well be an informant for an agency that has undermined governments throughout the world.
Let us not forget CNN's Peter Arnett, who reported live daily from Baghdad during the Persian Gulf war. Despite the worry warts back home who criticized Mr. Arnett every time he reported the Baghdad's government point of view, Pentagon officials said afterward that Mr. Arnett's live pictures actually helped Defense Department assess the effectiveness of their bombing.
That's how it is supposed to work.
In the course of doing their job, journalists can help the efforts of their host government, but that is not their primary purpose.
Some people have trouble telling the difference between spies and reporters. But there is a difference. Let's not fuzz it up.
Clarence Page writes a syndicated column.
Pub Date: 3/05/96