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Why are 6,000 reporters keeping a U.S. nonsecret?

by Ted Rall

I know a “secret.” I know the identity of the man who was CIA chief of station in Kabul until one month ago.

The name of the top spook in Afghanistan was disseminated via email to 6,000-plus reporters as part of an attendance list of senior U.S. officials participating in a meeting with President Barack Obama during his surprise visit with U.S. troops.

The government spotted the error and asked journalists not to post it. They agreed. Still, it’s all over the Internet.

What I found via Google during a few hours of searching made me 98 percent sure it was him; sources in Kabul covered the 2 percent of doubt.

Until the week before last I was working on this story for Pando Daily, where I was a staff writer and cartoonist. We intended to publish the name — not to endanger him (which in any case would not have been possible since CIA headquarters at Langley had yanked him off his post), but to take a stand for adversarial media.

Journalists ought to publish news wherever they find it, whatever it is, damn the consequences. Credible media organizations don’t protect government secrets. They don’t obey spy agencies. Real journalists don’t cooperate with government — any government, anytime, for any reason. My editor and I believed that by demonstrating a little fearlessness, we might inspire other media outfits to grow a pair and stop sucking up to the government.

There is no longer a “we.” Pando fired me along with the investigative journalist David Sirota. Stripped of the institutional protection of a media organization willing to supply legal representation and advice, I cannot move forward with our/my original plan to reveal the name.

Nevertheless, I think it valuable to draw attention to an absurdity: Thousands of journalists representing hundreds of press and broadcast media outlets, all of whom agreed to keep a secret that wasn’t much of a secret in the first place, which ceased being secret the second they received it, which remains easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection — to curry favor with a government that routinely lies to reporters like them.

On May 25, President Barack Obama paid a visit to the U.S. air base at Bagram, north of Kabul, which includes an expanded torture facility for Muslim detainees. Sixteen “senior” U.S. officials were invited to Bagram to give Obama a briefing on the military situation.

Among them was the Kabul chief of station (COS) — the CIA’s top man in occupied Afghanistan. An Obama administration PR flack mistakenly included the COS’ name on a list of meeting attendees that was emailed to more than 6,000 journalists around the globe.

From The Washington Post: The list was circulated by email to reporters who traveled to Afghanistan with Obama, and disseminated further when it was included in a summary of the event meant to be shared with other news organizations, including foreign media, not taking part in the trip. The summary was filed by Washington Post White House bureau chief Scott Wilson. Wilson said he had copied the list from the email provided by White House press officials. He sent his summary to the press officials, who then distributed it to a list of more than 6,000 recipients.

What happened next is worthy of the movie “Brazil” and what it reveals about the slavishly submissive posture of reporters and their editors and producers to the U.S. government in general and the CIA in particular.

Though CIA COS’s are secret agents, in practice they often maintain such a high profile — working out of the local U.S. embassy, being seen at ex-pat hangouts and coming and going from major events (such as meeting with the president) that their identities are widely known in their host countries. They may be “secret” — but their names aren’t. The predecessor of the Kabul COS outed in May, for example, had previously been identified on Facebook.

The Taliban and other adversaries have superb access to intelligence throughout Afghanistan, including widespread infiltration among the police and Afghan military. They are sophisticated Internet users. They can target a COS anytime they feel like it. But they probably won’t. Like other guerilla armies, tracking such figures reveals years of useful information that is far more valuable than the one-off propaganda value of assassinating him.

The CIA recognized that its COS’ cover had been blown and pulled him out of Kabul. According to Sen. Rob Portman, he is safe. This where things get ridiculous: The White House asked 6,000-plus reporters to forget what they’d learned. And all of them did.

“The name and title of the station chief were removed in a later summary that urged reporters to ‘please use this list’ of attendees at the president’s briefing instead of the previous one,” reports The New York Times.

Such is the state of America’s fierce free press: All 6,000-plus reporters and their media employers adhered to the White House request to redact the outed COS’ name from their reporting. Yet, the former Kabul COS’ name is on a bunch of websites, particularly blogs that specialize in coverage of spy agencies.

Meanwhile, corporate media has spent the last month playing online Whack-a-Mole, censoring the outted COS’ name whenever it appears in an aggregated piece copied from an original version of the White House email by a bot, or in a comment thread. It stays up a few days before vanishing down the memory hole. Why do they do it?

Because the Obama administration asked nicely and to avoid offending the CIA — even though the name is not secret. In this case, kowtowing to the government has no practical effect. The guy is no longer in Kabul. Anyway, America’s enemies knew/know all about him.

They know, as I do, about the ex-COS’ previous postings. They know, as I do, about the cars he drives, the sports he enjoys, his address history in the U.S. and overseas, the names of his family.

Everyone leaves a digital trail — even spies. Anyone can find this stuff. We should be holding the Fourth Estate accountable for their failure to hold government accountable. The COS fiasco shows why corporate media can’t be trusted to challenge the powers that be.

Why isn’t one journalist out of 6,000 — unlike me, protected by lawyered-up media organizations — willing to publish a government secret that the government gave away?

Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan,” due out Sept. 2. © 2014 Ted Rall

  • zer0_0zor0

    Thank you, Tom, a much needed exposé.

    Sshhh…

  • JimmyJM

    “Journalists ought to publish news wherever they find it, whatever it is, damn the consequences.” Is just plain wrong. Journalists need to be responsible. During WWII, American submarines could evade Japanese depth charges by diving below 300 feet. Japanese destroyer captains believed submarines could never go that deep. A reporter of the Ted Rall variety learned of the American tactic and published it. The next time an American submarine was detected, Japanese depth charges were set to a more appropriate depth. The 6000 journalists Rall denigrates are trying to be responsible even in a losing bid.

    • zer0_0zor0

      A typical example of the “national security” mentality in action aimed at undermining civil society.

      The USA is not at war, and the CIA is not the military.

      • Strider73

        The USA is not at war, and the CIA is not the military.

        Ah, but the US — like Oceania — is at war. Eternal war to keep the sheeple frightened and the military-industrial complex flush with taxpayer loot. The warnings of Smedley Butler and Dwight Eisenhower were not heeded.

        As for the CIA not being the military, I suspect the fictional Col. Flagg was a lot closer to reality than anyone (especially the CIA) would like to admit

  • andrewp111

    The names of secret agents is one of the few pieces of information that are specifically secret by act of Congress. (So is nuclear weapons design info). All other classified info has its legal basis in an executive order implementing the Espionage Act. So, regardless of the facts, you can be prosecuted for revealing the information, and I have no doubt that Eric Holder would do so, just to make an example of someone.

  • http://www.manfromatlan.blogspot.com manfromatlan

    Valerie Plame, comment?