When the Press Makes Life or Death Decisions

The Associated Press recently ran a long story about Robert Levinson,  a former FBI agent who disappeared while in Iran.  Levinson later showed up in Internet photos suggesting he was a hostage.  The AP story made clear that the former agent had a long relationship with the CIA and was likely working on a CIA project when he went to Iran.

Robert levinsonThat means the AP story was a potential death sentence for Levinson.  How did AP decide whether to release such dangerous information?  Well, here’s what its executive editor said (emphasis added):

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

Short version: Unless someone proves this story will kill Levinson, it’s too good to sit on.

I’m often tough on the New York Times, but its handling of the same problem contrasts sharply with AP’s.  Here’s what it said [paywall] when the AP story seemed to have scooped the Gray Lady:

The New York Times has known about the former agent’s C.I.A. ties since late 2007, when a lawyer for the family gave a reporter access to Mr. Levinson’s files and emails. The Times withheld that information to avoid jeopardizing his safety or the efforts to free him.

I can’t help noting that the New York Times could also have been influenced by a relatively recent law that protects the identities of covert agents.  The Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 makes it a felony to disclose those identities:

Whoever, in the course of a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents and with reason to believe that such activities would impair or impede the foreign intelligence activities of the United States, discloses any information that identifies an individual as a covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such individual and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such individual’s classified intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

Associated Press must be leaning hard on the defense that it has shown no “pattern” of identifying “agents” in the plural.

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