I know a secret.
I know the identity of the man who was CIA Chief of Station in Kabul until one month ago.
The name of the top spook in Afghanistan was disseminated via email to 6,000+ reporters as part of an attendance list of senior U.S. officials participating in a meeting with President Obama during his surprise visit with U.S. troops. The government spotted the error and asked journalists not to post it.
They agreed. Still, it’s all over the Internet.
What I found via Google during a few hours of searching made me 98% sure it was him; sources in Kabul covered the two percent of doubt.
Until last week I was working this story for Pando Daily, where I was a staff writer and cartoonist. We intended to publish the name — not to endanger him (which in any case would not have been possible since Langley had yanked him off his post), but to take a stand for adversarial media.
Journalists ought to publish news wherever they find it, whatever it is, damn the consequences. Credible media organizations don’t protect government secrets. They don’t obey spy agencies. Real journalists don’t cooperate with government — any government, any time, for any reason. My editor and I believed that, by demonstrating a little fearlessness, we might inspire other media outfits to grow a pair and stop sucking up to the government.
There is no longer a “we.” Pando fired me over the weekend, along with the investigative journalist David Sirota.
Stripped of the institutional protection of a media organization willing to supply legal representation and advice, I cannot move forward with our/my original plan to reveal the name.
Nevertheless, I think it valuable to draw attention to an absurdity: thousands of journalists representing hundreds of press and broadcast media outlets, all of whom agreed to keep a secret that wasn’t much of a secret in the first place, which ceased being secret the second they received it, which remains easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection — in order to curry favor with a government that routinely lies to reporters like them.
On May 25th President Obama paid a visit to the U.S. airbase at Bagram, north of Kabul, which includes an expanded torture facility for Muslim detainees. Sixteen “senior” U.S. officials were invited to Bagram to give Obama a briefing on the military situation. Among them was the Kabul Chief of Station (COS) — the CIA’s top man in occupied Afghanistan.
An Obama Administration PR flack mistakenly included the COS’ name on a list of meeting attendees that was emailed to more than 6,000 journalists around the globe.
From The Washington Post:
The list was circulated by e-mail to reporters who traveled to Afghanistan with Obama, and disseminated further when it was included in a “pool report,” or summary of the event meant to be shared with other news organizations, including foreign media, not taking part in the trip.
In this case, the pool report was filed by Washington Post White House bureau chief Scott Wilson. Wilson said he had copied the list from the e-mail provided by White House press officials. He sent his pool report to the press officials, who then distributed it to a list of more than 6,000 recipients.
What happened next is notable both for farcicality worthy of the movie “Brazil,” and what it reveals about the slavishly submissive posture of reporters and their editors and producers to the U.S. government in general and the CIA in particular.
Though CIA Chiefs of Station are secret agents, in practice they often maintain such a high profile — working out of the local U.S. embassy, being seen at ex-pat hangouts and coming and going from major events (c.f., meeting with the president) that their identities are widely known in their host countries. They may be “secret” — but their names aren’t. The predecessor of the Kabul COS outted in May, for example, had previously been identified on Facebook.
The Taliban and other adversaries have superb access to intelligence throughout Afghanistan, including widespread infiltration among the police and Afghan military. They are sophisticated Internet users. They can target a COS any time they feel like it. But they probably won’t. Like other guerilla armies, tracking such figures reveals years of useful information that is far more valuable than the one-off propaganda value of assassinating him.
The CIA recognized that its Station Chief’s cover had been blown and pulled him out of Kabul. According to Senator Rob Portman, he is safe.
Now things get ridiculous: the White House asked 6,000+ reporters — reporters! — to forget what they’d learned. And all 6,000+ did.
“The name and title of the station chief were removed in a later pool report that urged reporters to ‘please use this list’ of attendees at the president’s briefing instead of the previous one,” reports The New York Times.
Such is the state of America’s fierce free press: All 6,000+ reporters and their media employers adhered to the White House request to redact the outted COS’ name from their reporting.
It’s not that the former Kabul Station Chief’s name isn’t out there. It’s on a bunch of websites, particularly blogs that specialize in coverage of spy agencies.
Meanwhile, corporate media has spent the last month playing online Whack-a-Mole, censoring the outted COS’ name whenever it pops up. Whenever his name appears in an aggregated piece copied from an original version of the White House email by a bot, or in a comment thread, it stays up a few days before vanishing down the memory hole.
Why do they do it? Because the Obama Administration asked nicely. And in order to avoid offending the CIA.
Even though the name is not secret. In this case, kowtowing to the government has no practical effect. The guy is no longer in Kabul. Anyway, America’s enemies knew/know all about him.
They know, as I do, about the ex-COS’ previous postings. They know, as I do, about the cars he drives, the sports he enjoys, his address history in the States and overseas, the names of his family.
Everyone leaves a digital trail — even spies. No one has privacy — not even spies.
Anyone can find this stuff.
We should be holding the Fourth Estate accountable for their failure to hold government accountable. The Kabul Chief of Station fiasco exposes the subservience that shows why corporate media can’t be trusted to challenge the powers that be.
Why isn’t one journalist out of 6,000 — unlike me, protected by lawyered-up media organizations — willing to publish a government secret that the government gave away?
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan,” out Sept. 2. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
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