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Naming Spies Can Be Dangerous

By Ben L. Kaufman · September 1st, 2004 · Media, Myself & I
Being accused of being a CIA undercover agent isn't fun. I've been there.

It was early 1964. Yuri sat down uninvited at my table in the Nkana Hotel on Zambia's Copperbelt. I paused from my efforts to cut the notoriously tough steak.

"Well, Kaufman, how are things at the Agency?"

Peachy, I assured him, and asked if his bosses in Moscow were pleased with his work.

"Always," he always replied.

It was a game we played.

Yuri mistakenly believed I was a CIA agent assigned to the soon-to-be-independent British protectorate in Central Africa. To him, creating and editing a black nationalist daily paper was my CIA cover. I was sure Yuri was the resident Soviet spy in the mining town of Kitwe.

Yuri needed me, but I could have done without him. Ours was an odd relationship, shadows instead of candor, verbal sparring rather than warmth.

Those edgy exchanges -- with their implied threat of violence if it suited him -- come to mind as I read that the Justice Department still is investigating syndicated columnist Robert Novak's accurate but vindictive naming of Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA agent.

Plame is the wife of Joe Wilson, the former ambassador sent by the Bush Administration to probe claims that Saddam Hussein tried to buy nuclear weapons material from Niger.

Wilson reported no credible evidence, but Bush claimed the alleged Niger link as a justification for war. Wilson then used the op-ed page of The New York Times to debunk that assertion. Novak's partisan attack on Wilson's wife followed.

Novak's timing couldn't have been worse. If ever we needed good human intelligence gathering and analysis, it is now. Being outed can destroy a spy's career -- if it doesn't land the agent in a foreign prison or grave. Even if he/she is safe, everyone with whom they dealt becomes suspect to their government and that can be lethal. Moreover, locals' fear of secretly collaborating makes it harder for other agents to develop vital contacts.

In the year since Novak outed Plame at the bidding of unnamed senior administration officials, the politicization of the affair has intensified. Reporters who covered the brouhaha are being subpoenaed by a special prosecutor hired to identify officials who leaked Plame's identity to Novak.

So far, reporters have honored promises to protect sources' anonymity and face fines and/or jail for contempt. So far, it appears Bush-friendly Novak hasn't been subpoenaed.

That might be an honest prosecutor's strategy or it might be the payoff for Novak's knowing complicity in the Plame affair. If he is subpoenaed, will he break his promise, name names and escape punishment or will he find the integrity to refuse and enjoy the same sanctions for contempt as the reporters?

· · ·

That you're reading this identifies you as a member of the choir, so I won't preach to you about Americans relying on TV for vital political news. Rather I want to talk about roles that daily papers ought to play in creating or maintaining an informed electorate. It's increasingly important as toxic politicking deliberately discourages Americans from voting and much of radio, TV and cable turn from reporting to editorializing.

Most homes don't subscribe to a daily, yet papers have an impact beyond their readership. They generate stories that broadcasters often pick up. Think of Watergate, My Lai and weapons of mass destruction. Think of local news.

That said, dailies too often cover elections in predictable, formulaic ways that promote reader fatigue before voting begins. Joe Strupp, senior editor at the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, interviewed journalists around the country and came up with "10 mistakes the press makes (and repents) every election year." It's a useful standard in any community:

1. Falling in love with polls. Dig into issues instead.

2. Not talking to enough voters. Leave the office and Internet for the streets.

3. Too much information, not enough analysis. "What does it mean" is not the same as partisan editorials.

4. Not digging into backgrounds of local candidates. Easy to do but rarely done.

5. Becoming blinded by stereotypes of candidates. Remember Dan Quayle's image after spelling potato "potatoe" or Howard Dean's "howl?"

6. Judging candidates by their ability to campaign, not their ability to govern. Do they have the experience or identifiable talent for the position?

7. The horse-race mentality. This skips issues for "who's ahead" in polls when it doesn't count.

8. Not challenging candidates' statements enough. Reporting isn't stenography.

9. Letting campaigns and candidates set the agenda. Slothful and/or inexperienced editors and reporters often don't know more than what the candidates tell them.

10. Small papers fawning over national candidates, who love to get around experienced national campaign reporters.

· · ·

Curmudgeon notes:

· Bring back the copy editors who aren't afraid to delete editorializing and time-honored cliches from reporters' copy. Recent local offenders include a "monster-sized" Delta write-down, its "whopping 10-digit loss" and "future income tax benefits for the foreseeable future." The same story quoted an analyst saying the numbers were not "earth shattering."

· Again, we're being asked to "do something" about black Africans being brutalized by their countrymen. Stark photos of Sudanese women and children in refugee camps recall civil conflicts and/or politically caused famines in Zimbabwe, Somalia, Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, Ivory Coast and Liberia. American news media too often simplify this latest Sudanese misery as genocide. Can't we handle thoughtful explanations of historic tensions between North African Arabs and black Africans, Muslims and Christians or animists, slavers and slaves, herders and farmers and limited natural resources and growing populations in Sudan?

· More than their humane health care principles distinguish Canadians from us. So do the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and its civil, informed call-in shows, lively coverage of Canadian cultural events and overnight programs from other countries' English-language news services.

· If you can't pull in CBC, try BBC World Service on WVXU-FM after midnight.

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.


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