Intelligence wants the media to join its game of Spy vs. Spy Instead of recruiting journalists, try using their work

March 10, 1996|By Anna Husarska

MY NONASSOCIATION with the CIA started 12 years ago. It was in the war-emptied ghost town of Tenancingo, El Salvador, that I was accused of being a CIA spy by local guerrillas whom I visited as administrator of a French humanitarian mission.

My first journalistic nonassociation with the CIA dates from Christmas week of 1991, which I spent in detention in Cuba, mostly in a squalid interrogation room where I was repeatedly asked by a major from the Interior Ministry why I wouldn't confess to spying for the CIA. I told him that he must be crazy, that the agency's own regulations had forbidden employing or posing as journalists since 1977, following a scandal involving CIA use of reporters.

I repeated the same arguments in 1993, after I was stopped at gunpoint with several other hacks in Pale, the so-called Bosnian Serb capital. We were all accused of being on a spy mission. Earlier that year, the Haitian supporters of then-exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide accused me of being on the CIA payroll; I told them that the opinion article that so infuriated them was my own idea.

How to dispel suspicion

In 1994, I was accused of being a CIA spy because, with two other journalists, both Russian, I crossed the Abkhazia/Georgia border when there was some fighting going on. What would I be doing there if not spying for the CIA? My two fellow travelers had a bottle of vodka and -- there is no limit to Russian resourcefulness -- an open can of sardines in tomato sauce for an appetizer. In pouring rain, we carried these goodies into the checkpoint and suspicion disappeared with the sardines.

Then, in October 1995, while I was taking photographs of paramilitary formations in Serbia at the invitation of the Serb commanders, the press secretary of a local warlord accused me of gathering material for the CIA.

Every time, I countered in good faith that the CIA did not employ journalists, nor did it have spies pretending to be journalists. So two weeks ago when I heard CIA Director John M. Deutch defend a long-standing policy allowing clandestine officers, under "extraordinary circumstances," to waive regulations and pose as reporters or to use reporters as informers, I felt kind of out-spooked.

Henceforth I will not be able to laugh off thugs, warlords and police officers in totalitarian states when they accuse me of being a CIA spy. Nor can I be confident in pointing out my two non-U.S. passports and protesting that I have no loyalty links to the United States and even less with the CIA. The Washington Post reported that whatever prohibitions existed against recruiting journalists "have never applied to foreign journalists, whom the CIA still looks to recruit, according to sources familiar with the matter."

If the stain of suspicion is on all journalists, then those foreign sources (official or not) who want to deny access to media will have an excuse to do so. And the truth is, policy-makers can ill afford to lose any reporting from the honest news media. God forbid they should have to depend only on what the spies know.

What the spooks don't know

After many interviews with Western military and civilian intelligence personnel in Haiti and then in Bosnia, I realized that they often pooh-pooh journalism as not worthy of their attention. In Haiti, for instance, the press reported consistently that the paramilitary organization called FRAPH were murderous thugs, a direct heir to the feared Tontons Macoutes. The CIA maintained that they were just another political party, and told that to the U.S. forces arriving there as peacekeepers in 1994. As a result, the Americans saw no need to neutralize FRAPH, tainting their democratic image with the locals.

I was not too surprised, either, when a U.S. Marine intelligence captain and a civilian intelligence expert from the Defense Department with whom I flew from Tuzla to Sarajevo in February assured me that the shuttle that they were taking from the airport would be stopping "right in front of the Hotel Serbia" in central Sarajevo. Now, to have a Hotel Serbia in the center of Sarajevo these days is about as likely as a Hotel Hanoi in Saigon in 1972. Stupidity is the most charitable interpretation on these large and small idiocies.

One can only hope that the intelligence community will make an intelligent decision and start using journalists' work, not their identities.

Anna Husarska is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributing editor at The New Republic.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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