By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
CHICAGO Tucked away amid a huge array of media organizations at a journalists' convention last month was a nondescript stall that easily could have been missed among the many booths with more inviting presentations.
Those staffing booth number 1709 offered no chocolate kisses, key chains or souvenir pens to attract job seekers. The only decorations were banners showing a diverse group of young people, presumably the type the recruiters wanted to attract as colleagues. Like other recruiters, they handed out business cards. But unlike others, the two staffing this booth offered cards with no last names.
The CIA had set up shop, wedged between recruiters for WNYC, the Portland Oregonian and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, at the Unity Journalists of Color Convention. (Full disclosure -- I belong to the National Association of Black Journalists, which is a Unity member.)
During this period when every week brings more bad news about newspapers, Craig P. and Sharon A. had no trouble finding journalists willing to talk about a career change. Sharon A. said the research, writing and communication skills journalists use are the same skills the agency needs to analyze intelligence.
"Since 9/11, the CIA has greatly expanded its hiring, and we continue to look for highly qualified candidates to fill any number of positions," a CIA spokesman said. Federal law prohibits the agency from using journalists employed by U.S. news organizations -- note the U.S. -- unless the president or the CIA director rules otherwise on a case-by-case basis. CIA officers are not allowed to pose as journalists.
Kim Fassler, a Honolulu Advertiser reporter, thinks the CIA may be the place to fulfill a government service obligation after her China study fellowship. "I don't think it's a bad thing to explore other opportunities," she said. "I've seen many colleagues lose their jobs."
Certainly on an individual level, Fassler has a right to seek work among the spies. But other journalists have a big problem with the agency recruiting at a journalism convention. The CIA presence at Unity lends credence to the notion that U.S. foreign correspondents work with intelligence agencies. That places reporters in peril.
Consider Terry Anderson. The former Associated Press reporter was kidnapped in 1985 and held hostage for more than six years in Beirut. This is from his 1996 Senate testimony: "We are talking about a real danger. This is not imaginary. Both as personal experience and in my duties as director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I know that journalists are put in danger by the perception that they're connected to intelligence agencies. We all know that in much of the world the CIA is viewed with great suspicion and distaste and that journalists in those same places begin with the presumption on the part of many people that they are somehow connected with intelligence gathering.
"I have been accused of being a spy, not just on the occasion of my captivity but on other occasions in various places. I was told by a number of people that I was on a list of CIA agents kept by the fundamental Shi'ites who captured me. And that is perception that is very difficult to disprove."
Or Gerald Seib. The Wall Street Journal writer was detained in 1987 for four days in Iran, where he was repeatedly accused of espionage.
Or Les Payne. The Newsday writer was accused of being a spy in 1980 after guerrilla fighters loyal to Robert Mugabe, now president of Zimbabwe, spotted Payne taking pictures of their military camp.
Or me. I reported from South Africa in 1986 for The Wall Street Journal. I spent a lot of time in Port Elizabeth, a politically charged black township. The leader of a group of youth who fashioned themselves as community protectors called me outside from an informal beer garden one night and said something to the effect: "People are saying you are CIA."
Those accused of collaborating with the white racist régime that ruled South Africa then, and that included the Reagan administration, could face quick and ugly retribution. Too often, that took the form of a necklace -- a tire doused with petrol placed over the head of the accused and set alight.
Of course, none of these journalists was or is connected to any intelligence agency. All made it home safely. Unfortunately, however, the CIA's participation in journalism job fairs makes it easy for the suspicious to see spies behind reporters' notebooks. That's why NABJ previously barred the CIA and the FBI from its conventions.
And four news media organizations -- the North American National Broadcasters Association, Radio-Television News Directors Association, World Press Freedom Committee and American Society of Newspaper Editors (which includes Washington Post editors) -- strongly urged Congress to prohibit the CIA from using journalists as spies in a 1996 statement: "As long as the possibility remains that any journalist may be seen as linked to an intelligence agency, all journalists remain at risk of harassment, personal attack, abduction or murder."
For the fanatics who want to see it, CIA recruitment at journalism conventions provides that link.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report. Contact Joe Davidson email@example.com.