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When an Intelligence Story Isn’t

 On Jan. 27, The Washington Post published a front-page article with a startling disclosure: American intelligence and military officials were targeting U.S. citizens for "killing or capture." The story quoted an unnamed official as saying that the Central Intelligence Agency and Joint Special Operations Command had drawn up lists of suspected terrorists and that both agencies had identified three Americans targeted for what the CIA used to call "termination with extreme prejudice.’’

Several days later, The Tribune Washington bureau published an equally compelling story on the front page of The Los Angeles Times and in other Tribune Co. newspapers. It reported that the CIA was about to add its first American to its list of people targeted for attack, Anwar al Awlaki, the New Mexico-born cleric linked to the Fort Hood attacks and the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing. The third paragraph declared that "No U.S. citizen has ever been on the CIA’s target list.’’

Anwar al Awlaki The Post’s piece was written by Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter known for her deep and authoritative sourcing. The author of the L.A. Times story, Greg Miller, is a similarly veteran Washington reporter. Yet the stories conflicted on a key point, whether Americans were already being targeted. Such confusion isn’t unusual when it comes to covering what are known as "black" programs.

Last Friday, the Post published a correction, saying that its source for the CIA list had called after the story had been published to say there had been a misunderstanding. The Post said additional reporting produced no "independent confirmation’’ of the existence of a CIA list of targeted U.S. citizens. It noted that a CIA spokesman was now calling the original report "incorrect.’’

How could this have happened?

I spent about a decade covering intelligence agencies and I always likened the job to being locked in a pitch-black room trying to identify animals by touch. You reach out for a limb and grab something: Is that a trunk or a leg? An elephant, a rhino, an alligator or a giant stuffed Panda bear?

This is a beat without press releases, government audits or easily available facts. The budget is a secret. Congressional oversight committees meet behind closed doors in a windowless room in the Capitol. People who talk to reporters risk their livelihoods (security clearances) or jail. Virtually no one ever goes on the record. There are press officers who answer the phones at CIA and elsewhere, but they are generally unwilling to play "20 questions" on complicated topics. Your interviews are few and chances for miscommunication abound. (Michael Gordon of The New York Times and I once argued for about an hour over whether someone had said "Uh huh" or "huh?" during a joint interview.)

A leading light among reporters in the field, a man who has had more than his share of shattering scoops, once confided to me that a 50 percent accuracy rate in an intelligence story was pretty good.

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)Complicating things further, intelligence officials are masters of Clintonian hair-splitting (they are, after all, trained as spies). Over the years, they have denied many a true story with tortured language and syntax clearly meant to deceive rather than elucidate.

The very first story I wrote as the New York Times’ intelligence reporter (in Sept. 1985) recounted how a senior Soviet agent, Vitaly Yurchenko, had defected to the West and fingered several CIA officers as spies. Reached the night before the story appeared, the agency spokesman said he could not comment on defectors. Not now. Not ever. I read him my opening sentence anyway. He declined to comment.

The next day, that same spokesman found his voice, issuing a denial that called my story "untrue.’’ The Justice Department elaborated, saying: "'Yurchenko has not indicated there are any employees of the C.I.A. working as Soviet agents.'' Later, I learned the main turncoat identified by the defector had been fired by the CIA. Yurchenko re-defected to the Soviet Union soon after. Prosecutors eventually charged Edward Lee Howard, a former CIA employee, with spying for the Soviet Union.

To return to the Post’s story about the CIA targeting Americans. A few days after it ran, the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, told a Congressional committee that if the intelligence community did ever target an American, it would "get specific permission to do that.’’ Blair’s testimony made it sound like the CIA was poised to add U.S. citizens to its list, but hadn’t done so quite yet.

As for the part of the story that said the Pentagon’s joint special operations command had targeted Americans, no one has denied it and The Post isn’t taking it back.

To sum up the story as it now stands: American authorities ARE targeting Americans. But the people doing so are employed by the military, not the CIA. That probably won’t make much difference to those hit by the missiles, but it matters in the larger debate about the roles of the intelligence community and military.

My sympathy is with Dana Priest, without whose hard work readers would know a lot less about the government’s more unsavory secrets. And kudos to The Post for setting the record straight.

With sources so hard to cultivate, reporters on the intelligence beat don’t always follow up on each other’s stories, not out of petty jealousy, but because they can’t confirm the information.

Here’s hoping others will follow this particular trail.

Some questions for a follow-up: Under what rules or legal authorities are special operations forces soldiers deciding to target Americans? How did the military’s list come to include three names when CIA had not yet added a single American? Who signs off on a kill order of an American?

Mark Hosenball of Newsweek took a first stab at this on Feb. 5, reporting that President George W. Bush signed a finding that authorized the CIA and Pentagon to kill suspected terrorists without permission from senior officials. Strikes aimed at Americans, Hosenball reported, must be approved by a committee of intelligence officials and members of the cabinet but not the president.

Good stories beget great stories. And so, too, can corrections.