In recent years, the CIA has authorized many of its former operatives to land lucrative book deals and pundit gigs — a fact that would have horrified previous generations of spooks. And yet, notes journalist Ted Gup, the agency remains notably selective about the information it allows to be disclosed. Bob talks with Ted about what he calls the CIA's "double standard" on secrecy.
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[ZERO DARK THIRTY CLIP]:
CIA OPERATIVE: I want to make something absolutely clear….There's nobody else coming to the rescue. There is just us.
BOB GARFIELD: That's a scene from the acclaimed and controversial movie, “Zero Dark Thirty.” Two weeks ago, former CIA Deputy Director José A. Rodriguez, Jr. wrote a Washington Post op-ed to clarify, among other things, the film’s depiction of waterboarding. Instead of large buckets of water, he says, small plastic bottles were used to enhancedly interrogate Jihadists. Putting aside whether torture is somehow less torturous because of the smaller containers, and the now-discredited claim that waterboarding yielded intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts, Rodriguez was looking a gift horse in the mouth.
For the CIA, “Zero Dark Thirty” has been a PR bonanza. According to journalist Ted Gup, the episode and the film itself reflect an agency increasingly willing to reveal operational secrets, when convenient, while keeping strictly mum on matters that may embarrass or incriminate it.
TED GUP: The agency employs a double standard when it comes to secrecy. The problem is that by applying the rules of secrecy inconsistently, people who run afoul of their arbitrariness can find themselves ensnared in a world of hurt, and the public can become very confused by the pictures that emerge.
You know, there was an editor years and years ago at the New York Times named Scotty Reston, and he would say that government is the only vessel that leaks from the top. And I think that's part of the problem, that the CIA has a director and it has its senior people who, when it suits them, will speak with the press on background for guidance but woe to those who will speak to the press and raise questions or be critical of what the agency is doing.
BOB GARFIELD: Then there's the John Kiriakou case, an ex-CIA officer who is going to jail for revealing to a journalist information that never even found its way into print.
TED GUP: Right. John Kiriakou, who I believe was accused of providing the name of someone who was undercover to someone in the press. That person in the press did not disclose the identity of that operative. I think about all of the former covert operatives who have provided me with the names and identities of sources for stories I worked on whose cover had not been lifted. And my colleagues in the press, we have all been the recipients of these sorts of leaks. None of us, to my knowledge, have ever knowingly disclosed the identity of those people, and none of those sources, to my knowledge, have ever been prosecuted.
So I think the reason that Mr. Kiriakou came into the crosshairs of the agency may have had less to do with the information he imparted to a member of the press, and more to do with the fact that he had run afoul of them earlier, by being an outspoken critic of waterboarding.
BOB GARFIELD: We are, as you pointed out in your piece, simply awash in intelligence nonfiction, sometimes from journalists such as yourself, sometimes from ex-CIA, sometimes collaborations of the two. You've said that as a society we should probably be pleased that we have a window into this murky world, but I can't help but wondering, when I read these books, whether somehow this isn't itself part of some ongoing op and journalists have been co-opted and the public has been somehow tricked.
TED GUP: I definitely think you're onto something there. I think I saw a significant shift beginning in the nineties, where the agency's concern for its public image here at home became increasingly expressed and its campaign to win over the American public increasingly sophisticated. And that's when you saw this profusion of memoirs written by former operatives.
I saw a tremendous amount of leaking, and I know that my colleagues in the press have as well. They have their own liaison in Hollywood who works with filmmakers when the films are deemed not to be overtly hostile to the agency. Over the last 20 years, the agency that once simply invoked “neither confirm nor deny” has become something of a spigot for stories that continually flow to the press. And you know that in the old days, and I'm talking about the fifties and sixties, such things would never have been tolerated.
BOB GARFIELD: Getting back to “Zero Dark Thirty,” it was revealed long before the movie premiered that the filmmakers enjoyed special access to the inside dope on the operation, courtesy of the CIA. And some GOP members in the House, and I think Senate, went nuts because they considered it a serious breach of national security. I'm curious, given your ambivalence, do you think those legislators were right?
TED GUP: My recollection is that at least a part of the motivation of the GOP legislators who objected to the special access accorded to the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” was rooted in concern that it would have potentially a political impact on the elections that were imminent, the fear that it would depict President Obama as a commanding figure, a heroic figure. But if their consternation was rooted principally or exclusively in a concern for consistency in the application of secrecy, then I'd have to say I'm probably with them. This is another example of special access eroding the credibility of the agency's invocations of secrecy.
BOB GARFIELD: This program institutionally has a huge bias towards transparency, but I think it's probably fair to say that covering the CIA is not like covering the local school board. A reporter has to consider all sorts of consequences, not only for national security but for the security of your sources.
TED GUP: As a journalist, I profoundly embrace transparency, and I do think that there's a legitimate need for the American citizens, in broad strokes at least, to understand what the agency does.
On the other hand, as a citizen, I want the CIA to recognize that the central credo of its work, espionage, is to be conducted in the shadows and not to be subject to the same rules of transparency. It is in our democratic system a distinct anomaly, and the contradictions and conflicts that I feel, I think are shared by many. There were materials provided to me over the course of the last 15, 20 years that I didn't publish, even though they would have made good stories, because I invoked the rule, “when in doubt, leave it out.”
BOB GARFIELD: Ted, thank you very much.
TED GUP: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Ted Gup is a Fellow at Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and author of The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Debts at the CIA.