CIA anonymity at presentation a faulty premise

Our newspaper was in an unusual position last week when national media spotlighted our run-in with the Central Intelligence Agency. In reporting the news, we became the news by refusing a CIA request to withhold an officer’s name.
He had planned to speak Wednesday and Thursday at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales on “the war on terrorism.” His name and photo had been publicized on posters all over the ENMU campus to promote attendance at the three scheduled presentations. Earlier, ENMU officials had sent press releases to local media that included the man’s name. The Portales News-Tribune was among area newspapers that published the name prior to the event.
Then, on April 9, ENMU officials asked that the Portales paper and the Clovis News Journal not provide any additional coverage of the officer’s presentations and that the officer’s name not appear in the paper again. CIA officials claimed publicity could place his life in jeopardy. We ultimately declined both requests and CIA officials canceled the programs.
We want to make sure readers understand the reasoning behind our actions.
First, we’re sympathetic and open to requests for anonymity when someone’s safety is at stake. We’ve withheld names on multiple occasions in recent years, most commonly those of random crime victims who fear publicizing of their names could lead to their being victimized again.
But the concerns voiced by the CIA defy logic.
We might feel differently if CIA officials had told us the publicity to promote the officer’s presentations at ENMU had been a mistake. But they said it was not a mistake. They stated they had no problem with ENMU sending out press releases announcing Officer Kenneth Kresse’s visit. They never objected to the officer’s name being published when area newspapers reported on his upcoming visit. They said they were not even concerned that the officer’s photo and name were widely distributed across the campus. The CIA only seemed concerned that the officer’s name not be reported outside Portales in connection with what he had to say about the war on terrorism. If a wire service picked up the story from a local paper, they said, the officer’s safety could be in danger.
Do CIA leaders believe ENMU, located in a city next to a military base, is an isolated paradise where international terrorists would never pose as law-abiding citizens? Or that al-Qaida sympathizers might monitor such university newspapers and Web sites, both of which announced this officer’s planned visit and used his name?
Do CIA leaders not know that Portales has all the modern communication devices as New York City, and that any individual — even someone passing through from out of town —could wander the campus, scan one of the publicity posters and send it straight to terrorist headquarters?
Or, is it more likely that the officer’s safety was never the issue, that the CIA — like most government agencies — would prefer to push its agendas without any media spotlight and the annoyance of a broader audience more likely to question tactics that critics claim are eroding individual rights provided by the Constitution?
After all, besides the FBI and the Bush Administration, it is the CIA that just happens to be under intense congressional and national scrutiny before the 9/11 panel for its performance before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
We enjoyed listening to Paul Harvey’s conservative radio show on Friday, where they joked about the CIA’s double standard for publicity. But it is not quite so funny when you consider these people are responsible for guarding against extremists willing to crash airplanes into buildings.
Frankly, we hope the agency leaders’ judgment is not always so convoluted.
Are we concerned this CIA officer may face more danger by his name being publicized? Of course. But we are more concerned that CIA leaders don’t recognize the danger — if it existed — was created when the officer’s photo and name were first publicized all over campus, apparently with the CIA’s blessing.
The danger clearly present in this incident is with faulty thinking on the CIA’s part.
Sure, we could have ignored this contradiction and agreed to the CIA’s request either to not cover the public meetings or not to name the officer if we did cover them. That would have kept our newspaper out of the news and shielded us from the inevitable criticism of government and those who equate government criticism with anti-Americanism. But our newspapers are government watchdogs, not lapdogs.
The media in America should never be considered a tool to be used only to promote government agendas, particularly the agenda of an intelligence agency facing the public’s ire for failing to protect Americans to the fullest.
If safety really is the issue, as the CIA claims, the public should know not just of CIA triumphs but also its activities that demonstrate incompetence. This is one of those moments. The CIA was foolish to promote an undercover officer’s speaking engagements, trumpeting his name and photo on a university campus, and then crying wolf later.