Back in 1978, I was sitting at the bar of the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, the storied safe haven for journalists and diplomats during the Lebanese civil war, when a low-level Palestinian official named Anis sidled up to me and asked if I was “from Israel.”
At the time, I was the Middle East correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, based in Jerusalem.
“I’m not ‘from’ Israel,” I told Anis. “I’m an American reporter based there, but I cover the entire Middle East.”
Anis lifted his chin and clucked his tongue in the Levantine gesture of disbelief.
“That’s what you say,” he replied. “I think you are Mossad, pretending to be a journalist.” A cold chill washed over me. In war-battered, trigger-happy Beirut, even a suspicion, not to mention an accusation, of being an Israeli spy could get me killed. So I immediately went to the front desk and called Mahmoud Labadi, the spokesman for Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. I had a decent working relationship with Labadi, who knew I was based in Jerusalem but didn’t confuse that with being an Israeli. I told him that Anis had just labeled me a Mossad spy and urged him to get Anis on the line right away and vouch for me.
“If you don’t, this could end very badly,” I said.
Labadi agreed. A few minutes later, the hotel operator summoned Anis to a phone call at the front desk. I could hear Labadi shouting at him through the phone. A chastened Anis hung up the receiver and turned to me.
“Ana asif,” he said in Arabic, touching his heart. “I apologize.” But he quickly added plaintively: “How can you know who is Mossad, who is CIA, and who is a real journalist?”
Good question. The truth is, thanks to the world’s spy agencies, one can’t. And the result can be bone-chilling moments like my run-in with Anis, or far worse. Because when spy agencies use journalism as a cover for their clandestine officers, it casts a cloud of suspicion on all journalists, no matter who their employer is or where they’re from.
I’m recounting this story because of a recent piece in The New York Times about a former Mossad agent named Sylvia Rafael, who carried out spy missions across the Arab world in the 1960s and 1970s while posing as a news photographer for a French photo agency.
Rafael used a reporting assignment in Lebanon to mail letter bombs to Beirut-based Palestinian leaders. In Jordan, PLO officials allowed her to photograph a secret military training camp, whose location Rafael passed on to her Israeli handlers. As a spy in journalist’s clothing , Rafael also gathered intelligence for the Mossad on social conditions in Yemen, Djibouti and Egypt. Her journalist cover even enabled her to shoot close-up portraits of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, his successor Anwar Sadat, and Algerian leader Houari Boumediene.
Although she was unmasked in a Mossad-authorized biography nine years ago, Israel’s spymasters are so proud of her feats that they’ve just released her long classified photos for a show in Tel Aviv.
The Times story angered me and several colleagues because it focused on Rafael’s apparent talent as a photographer but never mentioned the suspicion and danger that real foreign correspondents face overseas as a result of intelligence agencies’ using journalism as a cover identity for their clandestine operatives.
“The story says, without comment, that Mossad concealed its agent’s identity as a press photographer—something that, then or now, potentially endangers all other press photographers,” former Time magazine foreign correspondent Adam Zagorin commented in an email. “Yet the NYT never mentions that as an issue, or looks at whether this Mossad policy remains in force, raising the possibility that other photographers and even reporters have been, or still are, Mossad plants or agents. This is a significant issue for the press in general, which the NYT has previously recognised and addressed. But not this time.”
The Price of Suspicion
Over the past decade, numerous journalists around the world have been arrested and imprisoned on charges of espionage. As of Dec. 1 last year, a total of 363 journalists were imprisoned around the world, according data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, but the organization does not break down how many of those have been charged with espionage.
Last March, Polish authorities arrested and imprisoned Spanish freelance reporter Pablo Gonzales near the border with Ukraine, accusing him of spying for Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency.
Since then, Polish officials have not publicly disclosed any evidence to support their accusation. Meanwhile, Gonzales, who denies the charge, has remained in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. He has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, seeking release alleging the terms of his imprisonment violate his constitutional rights. In letters from prison, Gonzalez has said Polish security agents advised him to “eat flies or insects” if he wanted to maintain his protein levels.
It’s no surprise that the Russia-Ukraine conflict would put journalists in jeopardy. On March 10, Moscow’s FSB security service in Russian-occupied Crimea arrested Vladislav Yesypenko, a journalist for the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Eight days later, according to Reporters Without Borders, Yesypenko, “visibly pale” and speaking with “difficulty,” confessed on a local Russian television station to spying for Ukraine’s Security Services. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which promotes press freedom, said Yesypenko’s confession was “almost certainly obtained under duress.”
“Forcing an imprisoned journalist to declare himself guilty and broadcasting his ‘confession’ in a serious violation of journalistic ethics,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk, who called for his immediate release. “Such practices are also prohibited by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by Russia and Ukraine.”
Last October, Iranian intelligence officials arrested and imprisoned journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, labeling them CIA agents after they broke the news of the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not wearing her hijab head scarf properly. The news sparked nationwide protests that have rocked the country’s clerical leadership.
“More than 40 [Iranian] journalists have been detained since the protests erupted on streets across the country,” many accused of acting as American or Israeli agents, according to The Guardian newspaper.
In July 2014, Iranian officials arrested Washington Post foreign correspondent Jason Rezaian in Tehran on charges of espionage and “collaborating with hostile governments.” Held at Iran’s infamous Evin Prison, he was convicted after a closed-door trial in October 2015 and sentenced a month later to a term of undisclosed duration. After 544 days behind bars, he was released along with three other Americans in exchange for seven Iranian prisoners being held in the United States plus Washington’s release of $1.7 billion in frozen Iranian funds.
Asked if the Mossad continues to use journalism as a cover for its operatives, a former high-ranking Israeli official told me the spy agency doesn’t discuss its sources and methods.
The Mossad is not alone in having used journalism as cover for intelligence collection.
Cold War Collusion
During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union employed journalists or used their respective news organizations as cover for their intelligence gathering. In 1976, a Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA abuses during the 1950s and 1960s found that 50 U.S. journalists had secret official relationships with the CIA during that period.
The committee report didn’t mention any names, but a year later, legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein published a lengthy exposé in Rolling Stone that said the Church committee had bowed to White House pressure and minimized the number of journalists working with the spy agency .
Bernstein alleged that more than 400 American journalists had secretly performed assignments for the CIA over the preceding 25 years. Citing documents on file at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and interviews with CIA officials, Bernstein outed some of the biggest names in American journalism as willing assets who either carried out tasks for the CIA or enabled their editors and reports to do so. They included Newsweek columnist Stewart Alsop, New York Times Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and his columnist C.L. Sulzberger, Time magazine founder Henry Luce and CBS President William Paley, among many others.
“Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services—from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go‑betweens with spies in Communist countries,” Bernstein wrote. “Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors without‑portfolio for their country. Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested in the derring‑do of the spy business as in filing articles; and, the smallest category, full‑time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad.”
Bernstein explained why foreign correspondents proved so valuable to the agency’s clandestine operations.
“The peculiar nature of the job of the foreign correspondent is ideal for such work,” he wrote. “He is accorded unusual access by his host country, permitted to travel in areas often off‑limits to other Americans, spends much of his time cultivating sources in governments, academic institutions, the military establishment and the scientific communities. He has the opportunity to form long‑term personal relationships with sources and—perhaps more than any other category of American operative—is in a position to make correct judgments about the susceptibility and availability of foreign nationals for recruitment as spies.”
Limited Impact of Revelations
The CIA’s secret deployment of its agents as spies did not go down well with Loch Johnson, who was staff director of the Senate select subcommittee headed by Idaho Sen. Frank Church that was created in 1976 to look into CIA abuses.
“It’s outrageous,” said Johnson, a leading authority on intelligence issues and Regents Professor Emeritus of Public and International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. “In a democracy, one should not have spies pretending to be journalists,” Johnson told SpyTalk. “After all, one of the backbones of a democracy is a free press, and this practice corrupts that whole relationship.”
After the Church committee’s reports on the CIA, the agency adopted regulations that barred the use of American journalists or the names of U.S. news organizations as cover for the CIA’s clandestine officers, according to Johnson. The agency is still permitted to recruit foreign journalists.
Johnson said that the regulations included a waiver that had allowed two exceptions to the prohibition, one under CIA director Stansfield Turner (1977-1981) and the other during the agency’s directorship of John Deutsch (1995-1996). Deutch later said he reserved the right to make exceptions under “genuinely extraordinary” circumstances, according to The Washington Post. But he added that during his tenure, “I have not encountered any set of circumstances that would lead me to consider such a possibility.”
In both cases in which the waiver was used, however, Johnson told SpyTalk, Turner and Deutsch failed to inform the Senate and House intelligence committees, as required by the agency’s own regulations.
The CIA didn’t respond to SpyTalk queries asking if the 1976 prohibition remained in force, and whether there had been additional exceptions since 1996.
But Johnson added that the regulations apply only to accredited full-time American journalists, leaving the CIA free to employ or impersonate American stringers for U.S. news organizations and freelancers, as well as foreign reporters.
Today, I wonder if other American journalists are having close calls with hostile forces who accuse them of being spies, as I was back in Beirut decades ago. I hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
My story, thankfully, had a happy ending.
The Beirut incident became something of a private joke between me and Anis, my erstwhile Palestinian accuser. Whenever I returned to Lebanon and ran into him at the Commodore, Anis would greet me with a broad smile and say, “How’s my Mossad friend today?” And we’d have a laugh—but to me, it was no joking matter.