29/06/04 The CIA's Copy Desk and 'The NY Times'

Wolper Sees Conflict of Interest

What would Americans think if they knew that their best newspaper, The New York Times, had allowed one of its national-security reporters to negotiate a book deal that needed the approval of the CIA?

What would they say if they knew the CIA was editing the book while the country is days or weeks away from a war with Iraq and is counting on the Times to monitor the intelligence agency?

They would be properly horrified.

One of the golden rules of journalism is that you can't let your source control your content. Another is that you must avoid making financial deals with the people you cover. The reasons are obvious. Reporters turn themselves into pretzels to prove their reporting isn't compromised. And their credibility becomes a casualty of their relationships.

Here's what's happening.

The CIA is editing half of The Main Enemy, a book on the supersecret agency's 1980s war with the former Soviet Union's KGB co-authored by James Risen, a Times reporter who watchdogs the spies. The book is now set for a May release.

The CIA sanitized the sections written by Milton A. Bearden, a retired chief of the agency's Soviet division. He also ran the CIA's covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, according to Risen.

Bearden has left the CIA, but he stays active in global politics. He is president of the Steeplechase Group, a Reston, Va.-based consulting firm that is in the middle of a two-year, $50,000-a-month contract to mediate the civil war in Sudan, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Bearden is working for Anis Haggar, a London businessman who has family and financial interests in Sudan — a human-rights nightmare that was once a haven for Osama bin Laden. Bearden won that contract in April 2001, five months before bin Laden's brethren flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

How did the CIA become the editor of last resort for the book project? Anyone who has ever worked for The Langley Spooks can't publish anything until the agency signs off on it. Bearden explained the process to me: “I submit all my writings to the CIA. My Op-Ed pieces that run in newspapers. The CIA goes over everything I write. Risen doesn't have to [have his work reviewed]. End of story.”

The Risen-Bearden relationship is the kind of thing the Times would rant against on its editorial page if it involved a reporter from The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, or The Wall StreetJournal.

In fact, The New York Times is so conflict-of-interest sensitive, it would not allow Mike Wise, who specializes in National Basketball Association stories, to collaborate on a book with the Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal, according to The New York Observer.

This is the same Times that gave Risen four months off to work on his CIA book in the fall of 2000. He returned to the paper in January of the following year, kept working on his part of the manuscript, and was allowed to cover the CIA as he was completing it. “We've told [Risen] that he has to work this so that he is not in any way beholden to the CIA,” Bill Keller said in June 2001. Keller was the Times' managing editor when work on the book began.

When Risen was first asked about the project 18 months ago for a story published in the Columbia Journalism Review, he said the CIA would not present any obstacles to his project. “We're trying to break new ground,” he explained to me in a long e-mail message and a telephone interview. “It's something new and unique. I'll interview as many people as I can, and then we'll marry up the work later. We won't have any problems. The modern CIA doesn't give a shit anymore.”

Yes, it does. The CIA censors, known formally as the Publications Review Board, vetted 300 manuscripts by former agents from October 1999 to September 2000, the period when they were reviewing the Bearden-Risen proposal. And “the modern CIA” turned down a third of them.

Neither Risen nor The New York Times is answering questions this time around.

Fred Brown, ethics columnist for Quill magazine, the periodical of the Society of Professional Journalists, couldn't understand why the Times would permit Risen to make the book deal. “It raises questions about the depth and freedom of his reporting,” said Brown. Would The Denver Post have allowed Brown to sign a similar agreement when he was its Statehouse reporter? “No, I don't think so,” he replied. “It's too close and too covert.”…

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