My father was a CIA agent. I am a journalist. Now, if that isn’t a topical conflict, I don’t know what is.
I was raised in the home of an active duty covert officer of the CIA, and I grew up overseas. My father served as head of the CIA Station in places like Italy, Pakistan and Greece. Until the age of 13, I thought he was a diplomat who worked “at the Embassy,” for the State Department. But, as I began to be a little more observant of my surroundings, my father told me the truth. Actually, I remember going up on the roof of our house to install a radio antenna so I could pick up rock and roll music on Voice of America. When I got there, there already was a very big antenna! My Dad sat me down and explained the CIA facts of his life. I remember thinking “this is not so cool, because I can’t tell anyone!”
As I grew older, I questioned my Dad about the need for “cover.” After all, he admitted the Russian KGB people and other spies in town knew who he was. He explained that his “cover story” — that he worked for the State Department – was a diplomatic arrangement, to avoid embarrassing the host country’s government by admitting that it permitted spies to operate in its country. Later, when a CIA Station Chief in Greece was murdered, it became apparent that another reason for “cover” was to attempt to keep spies from becoming the targets of local revolutionaries. Of course, my Dad was a spymaster, not often an in-the-field “black bag” operative. For those guys, cover was often a matter of life and death.
To my Father’s surprise, I chose a career in journalism. I once told him, “we do the same thing – we both gather information. It’s just that you tell only a few people, I tell as many as I can.” His job was secret – mine is intentionally very public. In a sense, the purpose of our jobs was similar too. We both believed in supporting our democracy. But, our means were very different. I placed my faith in the American public. I felt they had both a right and an absolute “need to know,” in order to participate in our form of government.
These days, with an old NPR colleague and now New York Times correspondent Judy Miller in jail[[Editor’s Note: this piece was written while Miller was still in prison.]] , I feel very torn. I am reminded once again that life’s most interesting dilemmas are not conflicts of right and wrong, but conflicts of two rights. There is no question in my mind that our country needs to spy to protect itself. Former Secretary of State Henry Stimson, who said “Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail,” simply was wrong. Secrecy and cover are essential parts of gathering intelligence. But, we also need accountability from our government, which can be provided only by a truly free press, and to me that means a press that can say to its sources, when necessary, “we promise to keep your identity confidential” and that we can make that promise stick. In my mind, the confidentiality between a source and a reporter is as important as the confidentiality promised by a doctor or a priest. Without it, the public would never have known of Watergate, of the tobacco company scandals, and the stories of so many other whistleblowers who protect our public just as our military does. At the same time, no American should have the right to choose when he or she bears the obligations of citizenship. Journalists are also citizens. They vote and benefit from being Americans – they need to participate in our society and pay their dues just as every other citizen does.
Can this dilemma be resolved? I think it can. It seems to me that reporters should be permitted to promise and deliver their sources’ confidentiality except when a criminal act has been or is about to be committed and the source is the only person who can provide crucial information that is needed to prevent the crime or prosecute the criminals. And, even if that case is made, it should be possible for the source to give his or her testimony “in camera” to the judge and attorneys, not to the public at large. I recognize that this undermines another principal of democracy, open proceedings, but I think this is a smaller sacrifice than violating a pledge of confidentiality in public.
These days, the public clearly has diminished respect for journalists. Our credibility is at a low ebb, and there are lots of reasons for that. But whether or not you like journalists, I think it is critical that we remember the crucial role that the “fourth estate,” the press, plays. One of the most credible journalists of his time, former nightly TV anchor Walter Cronkite, once said, “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.” If we take that freedom for granted and do not value it, we’ll wake up one day and it will be gone.
Jim Russell is a veteran journalist who has worked in public radio and television for more than 30 years. He is a former Reporter for and Executive Producer of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, created the American Public Media business program Marketplace, and currently develops new programs for American Public Media in Los Angeles.