A Freedom of Information Act request lodged with the Pentagon has raised the bizarre prospect of the act being used to help one reporter spy on another.
Jack Taylor, an investigative reporter for The Daily Oklahoman, has asked the Army to supply him with the reports Pentagon information officers and others write to their bosses about press interviews they sat in on.
Taylor, in a letter to Army Secretary Clifford L. Alexander Jr., said he wants the "after action reports" on these interviews to help describe the "Army's relationship" -- not to mention its views and assessments -- "regarding news media contacts."
Washington Star reporter John Fialka, in a letter to the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, complained that compliance with Taylor's request would amount to letting the act be used "to ferret out the work product of another reporter." He said it would be worth amending the law, if necessary, to prevent such "pickpocketing."
Since the days when Robert S. McNamara was defense secretary, it has been the custom, and somtimes the rule, for information officers at the Pentagon to file reports on press interviews they monitor. While some high-ranking civilians and military officers do not bring a third party into such interviews, the Pentagon bureaucracy still pushes for such monitoring. This is true of many other government departments as well.
Taylor, who occasionally writes for The Washington Post as a "stringer," meaning on contract rather than as a full-time staffer, filed his Freedom of Information request to Maj. Gen. Robert Sullivan, the Army's top-ranking public affairs officer, on Nov. 10. Taylor asked for reports on other reporters' activities from June 1, 1980, onward.
The Army denied Taylor's request, asserting that "release of the material you requested would be a violation of the professional ethical standards which the Army has long maintained in its relations with news media representatives. Although unwritten, it has long been our policy that efforts of one newsman in his or her reporting of the Army shall be considered exclusive property. To do otherwise would be a totally unwarranted breach of confidentiality."
Added Brig. Gen. Lyle J. Baker in responding for Sullivan: "I am sure that you would be willing for any Army public affairs officer to reveal to your competition the story line you pursued and the information you were provided during one of your visits to an Army activity."
Taylor has appealed the decision to Secretary Alexander. Taylor contends that the Army reports on the interviews would not be detailed enough to compromise the reporters who conducted them.
Alexander and his legal advisers are weighing Taylor's appeal.