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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reporters Slam CIA Proposal for Journalist Covers

For U.S. journalists based in Moscow, a CIA proposal to send out spies posing as journalists, or recruiting journalists to carry out espionage, is decidedly an idea whose time has not come.

Reporters for a number of U.S. publications sharply criticized Wednesday a proposal floated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that it be allowed to use journalists, missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers as cover for its agents.

"We think it's a revolting and dangerous practice, and no New York Times reporter would ever allow themselves to be used that way," said Michael Specter, a correspondent in The Times' Moscow bureau.

"I think it would be a mistake for a journalist to do it, and a mistake for the CIA to do it," said David Hoffman, a Moscow-based correspondent for The Washington Post. "They have their job to do, and we have our job to do, and they should be done completely, entirely separately."

James Gallagher, Moscow bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, was equally negative, saying, "I think any journalist who decides that he ought to serve his country in some other capacity ought to stop being a journalist."

A spokesman for a Christian group working in Russia was equally negative.

"Our philosophy is that we are guests in the country, and we cannot interfere in any way," said Peter Deyneka, president of Russian Ministries, a Christian outreach organization."We would not be involved in that. We definitely never have been, and would not."

A panel set up by the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, a private organization, last month urged U.S. policy makers to lift a 1977 executive order prohibiting CIA use of such professions for cover. An intelligence official told The Post that exceptions to the ban "have been made in extraordinarily rare circumstances."

In the old days, of course, all Westerners working in Russia were viewed as potential spies. In 1986, U.S. News & World Report Moscow correspondent Nicholas Daniloff was jailed for espionage after U.S. authorities arrested a Soviet official at the United Nations.

The lifting of the limitations on CIA recruitment remains only a suggestion thus far, and none of the reporters contacted said they had encountered accusations of being agents.

But the potential for misperceptions remains. For example, on March 16, Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an article saying the CIA has made it a priority to collect data on Russia's presidential hopefuls -- just the kind of information a journalist would be interested in.

Some of the correspondents said even discussion of using journalists as spies can create dangers for foreign correspondents, particularly in war zones.

Several cited the example of Chechnya, where there is already widespread suspicion of Westerners. They pointed to the death of Fred Cuny, the aid worker who disappeared in Chechnya last year. According to various theories, he was killed by one or the other side in the conflict on suspicion he was an American intelligence agent.

"As we saw with the rumors surrounding the death of Fred Cuny, it's dangerous for people to even talk about it," said Specter. "I go to Grozny a lot, and I don't want to have to explain to people that I'm not an agent of the American government."

Another American journalist, while negative toward the idea, was less vehement on the issue.

"On the one hand, it's unrealistic to think that a country does not have intelligence services, and that they're not going to have to go with some kind of cover," said a correspondent, who asked not to be named. "My personal feeling as a journalist is that I'd prefer if they picked another profession, because I don't want my own credibility eroded."