CIA names: US media’s self-censorship

Published: December 19, 2010
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If the CIA station chief's identity was revealed - does the US media have a duty to report it?

The media in Pakistan, including the much-vaunted English press, is often accused of indulging in self-censorship. Given that we live in a country plagued by endemic violence and threats to journalists, this may well be true to some extent.

However, one thing that caught my attention today was how various newspapers had covered the ousting of America’s CIA station chief in Islamabad and the fact that he had to leave the country because his cover had been blown.

The story began with the filing of a complaint with police in Islamabad by a man called Karim Khan who alleged that his brother, a teacher in a secondary school, and his son, a guard at a local girls’ school had been killed in a drone attack on December 31, 2009. Mr Khan who is said to be a resident of Mir Ali in North Waziristan (why register the case with Secretariat police in Islamabad?) had nominated a man by the name of Jonathan Banks – who he claimed was the CIA station chief in Pakistan.

Obviously the question that comes to mind is how could a resident of North Waziristan know the name of the CIA station chief in Pakistan. One report mentioned this point and quoted the tribesman’s lawyer as saying that he got it from “two Islamabad-based reporters”.

A day or two later it transpired that the police, after advice from the legal branch, did in fact register a case against the person who had been nominated in the complaint. It was also mentioned in the complaint that Mr Banks was in fact on a business visa (wonder how the tribesman or his lawyer got hold of this piece of information) and that this wouldn’t give him the diplomatic immunity that he would need to avoid being arrested. Furthermore, it was also reported that after his identity reached the Pakistani media, he had received threats from the Taliban (this is not substantiated however through any independent verification.) Hence, the decision by Washington to call him back – not doing so could have endangered his personal security.

All this has already been reported on but the interesting thing in this was how the US media covered the story.

MSNBC, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Associated Press all ran stories but declined to name the CIA officer. Both MSNBC and the AP mentioned explicitly in the text of their main stories that they were not naming the official. The New York Times ran a story on December 17 raising the issue of the ISI’s involvement in the naming of the official but this was strongly denied by the intelligence agency. The Times then ran a story on December 18 quoting a senior ISI official as “strongly” denying any link to the CIA official’s name being outed.

The AP, too, ran a follow-up on December 18 of the ISI denying any involvement. However, this story stated the following:

The Associated Press learned about the station chief’s removal on Thursday [December 16] but held the story until he was out of the region. The CIA’s work is unusually difficult in Pakistan, an important but at times capricious counterterrorism ally.”

Even a layperson would find these words compromising the independence of the news agency because the first question that comes to mind is that surely this was a major story and AP held it until after Banks left Pakistan – and that wasn’t apparently till another day. A whole day, in a news cycle is like a decade so the news agency basically killed the story. On someone’s request or insistence? And if not then, doesn’t this qualify as an instance of self-censorship since the last time I checked, The Associated Press (whom I greatly respect as a news source) wasn’t an arm of the US government. The last sentence quoted above reads as if the reporter is speaking on behalf of the CIA since it has not been attributed to any source or spokesman.

The Guardian named the CIA officer, but perhaps that is because it is based in the UK. The reason why the American media didn’t disclose the name of the CIA station chief could be that the man’s post is classified and hence cannot be disclosed under US law. However, surely the secrecy associated with revealing Mr Bank’s position wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, have compelled The Associated Press from holding the story for 24 hours.

Omar R Quraishi

Omar R Quraishi

The editor of the editorial pages of The Express Tribune. He tweets as @omar_quraishi (twitter.com/omar_quraishi)

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