On 22 July 2014, Iranian authorities raided the residence of American-Iranian journalist and Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post, Jason Rezaian, taking both he and his wife into custody. Since then he has been held in Evin Prison, a detention facility notorious for the political prisoners and intellectuals it holds where he “has slept on blankets on the hard floor and awakened each morning with back pain, for which he has received no treatment.” Family members report that Rezaian has been “beaten on the feet with cables and has been tasered repeatedly.” After ten months the Iranian government announced Rezaian will be tried on four charges, including “propaganda against the establishment,” “collaborating with hostile governments,” and espionage. This is a fate all too common for Western journalists who are time and time again met with suspicion and resistance and are all too often stripped of their freedom and even their lives for doing their job.
Rezaian’s trial will be held in private. He has not been allowed to choose his own lawyer, and the government are yet to fully disclose evidence as to the accusations, which include “collecting classified information,” with a letter written to President Obama, being the only example of contact with a “hostile government” made public.
Washington and the Western media have been quick to jump to Rezaian’s defense. Josh Earnest called the charges “absurd, should be immediately dismissed and Jason should be freed immediately, so that he can return home to his family.” Martin Baron, the Washington Post’s executive director also called for Rezaian’s release, labeling the charges “absurd and despicable” and saying they “represent propaganda, not justice.”
In nearly every telling of the story, the reasons given for Rezaian’s arrest are politically motivated, with the Iranian judiciary knowingly using falsified charges to take a journalist off the beat whose job was to expose government abuses and report on Iran to the outside world in all its complexities, including its virtues as well as its faults.
The manner in which the Iranian judiciary is dealing with Rezaian’s case is absurd and flies in the face of any and all basic principles of justice. There is little evidence that Rezaian has committed any crimes and fewer signs that his case will be heard by a fair and impartial jury. The chances his case will be dismissed soon are low. However the narrative provided that Rezaian is simply “a pawn,” as the New York Times described the case, or that the charges are merely of a “political nature,” as the Washington Post wrote, ignores a greater problem at the heart of the trial: the role journalism has played as a cover for espionage.
Journalists and news organisations have long been used as a cover for espionage and covert operations. During World War II, the BBC was used to broadcast coded messages into occupied-Europe to be decoded for secret agents on the ground. Throughout the Cold War, intelligence agents used journalism as a cover to operate without arising suspicion, taking advantage of the positions of respect journalists hold as incorruptible seekers of truth. The fact that such operations continue to this day are indisputable and while there is no evidence to prove Rezaian was party to such activity, the actions of other journalists and the intelligence industry have acted to corrupt the image of journalists. While there is likely a political aspect to Rezaian’s arrest and detention, it is also necessary to take note of this history to understand that Iran may be equally motivated by paranoia and fear built on decades of CIA operations, many using journalism and journalists.
In 1977, these issues were brought to light in a ground breaking piece by Carl Bernstein published by Rolling Stone magazine entitled, “The CIA and the Media.” Listing journalists working for a range of US news outlets, including NBC, ABC, Reuters, Newsweek, and the Miami Herald, Bernstein singled out as “the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials,” being the New York Times, CBS, and Time Inc. “In the field, journalists were used to help recruit and handle foreigners as agents, to acquire and evaluate information, and to plant false information with officials of foreign governments,” Bernstein wrote of the work carried out, continuing: “Many signed secrecy agreements, pledging never to divulge anything about their dealings with the Agency; some signed employment contracts, some were assigned case officers and treated with unusual deference.”
Just as American news agents were quick to cooperate in the fight against Communism, so too were members of the British press. The BBC reported in 2013 the links between the British Press and the MI6, suggesting that the accusations made by the USSR that British journalists and editors (including staff at the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the BBC) were working with MI6 were likely accurate, despite previous claims against the accusations. In some cases these links seemed to be an open secret during the time, the report naming the Daily Telegraph’s managing editor, Roy Pawley, as being “notorious” for his connections to the MI6.
Journalism is an obvious choice for intelligence agencies to want to infiltrate. Herbert Pundik (aka, Nahum Pundak), a well respected Dutch reporter who admitted in 2010 to having worked as a Mossad agent, justified his decision by saying:
“In general, where is the boundary between espionage and journalism? For example, I wrote a detailed analysis of the tribes in Somalia and their attitude toward political parties, I investigated the political situation in northern Nigeria. These were thing that the newspaper was also interested in.”
While this is true, an intelligence agent’s work does not just include gathering information, but also the covert spread of information (and dis-information) and the recruitment of local agents (an issue Bernstein discusses) with the intention of undermining or influencing local issues in the target state. For this reason, intelligence agencies are inherently, and by definition, untrustworthy in a way that we expect our journalists, as seekers and sharers of truth and truth alone, not to be.
By crossing this line between journalist and agent, as Pundik/Pundak did and as Pawley allowed the Daily Telegraph to do, they risk undermining the position journalism and journalists en masse. “It is dangerous, not only for the journalist concerned, but for other journalists who get tarred with the espionage brush,” David Leigh, a now retired journalist from the Guardian wrote in 2000 on the issue of British journalism being “manipulates by the secret intelligence agencies.” On his colleague Fazrad Bazoft, who was executed by Saddam Hussein on charges of espionage, he said: “It did not, in a sense, matter whether he was really a spy or not. Either way, he ended up dead.” The fear is now that a similar fate will befall Rezaian.
The nature of espionage makes it rare that anyone involved would come forward or that information about current operations would be revealed. Most of the revelations relate to past operations often against enemies that no longer exist (the most common stories of the cross-contamination of journalism and espionage are from World War II and the Cold War). To claim that such operations do not continue, however, is naïve, with the CIA, Mossad, or the MI6 unlikely to draw a line under such operations solely for the protection of journalists.
One way we know this is through similar stories, such as the 2011 case in which the CIA used a false hepatitis B vaccine project in Pakistan to collect DNA information to help track down Osama bin Laden. The project failed in its intention but the project did help sow distrust in the public of the genuine health services and projects aimed at increasing their health and their quality of life. This distrust could, ultimately, lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, set public health efforts back by decades, and lead to the detention, imprisonment, and execution of health workers.
Journalists, and those they work for, have no incentive to come forward and admit that this relationship exists. To do so would not only put journalists across the globe at risk (particularly in those nations already suffering from intense paranoia about the operations of Western intelligence agencies) but also damage their reputation as incorruptible seekers of truth whose goals and practices stand above the pettiness of international politics. Nor are intelligence agencies ever going to admit that such operations take place when their target is still active and poses a threat to Western hegemony and security, nor will they resign such operations when they proof successful. No one should doubt, however, that such operations continue and, while Rezaian is likely an innocent victim of geopolitics and governmental paranoia, it is important to note that this paranoia is not unjustified and that the precedent exists and until the journalists industry acts to tackle this problem there will likely be more Rezaian’s to come.
Thomas C. Baron is a journalist in London.