An old debate has been needlessly revived in a report on intelligence sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The report, prepared under the guidance of the project's director, Richard Haass, a former Government official, calls for reviewing `a number of legal and policy constraints' on clandestine operations dating to the 1970's. Those constraints chiefly concern the use of spies posing as reporters and the employment of bona fide reporters for intelligence missions. Both practices were all but banned then, and should be prohibited now.
During the cold war, a pattern of informal collaboration developed between some journalists and the Central Intelligence Agency. Foreign correspondents and C.I.A. station chiefs sometimes swapped information In 1976, a Senate committee headed by Frank Church learned that this practice had gotten out of hand. Fifty journalists at various times had been paid by the C.I.A., and many more were used as `unwitting sources.'
There is no record of New York Times correspondents having financial relationships with the C.I.A., and the newspaper, along with other news organizations, has taken steps to eliminate the kind of informal information-sharing that went on early in the cold war.
The Church committee disclosure caused a justifiable uproar, resulting in a statement by George Bush, then Director of Central Intelligence , that the agency would not enter into any paid relationship with any full- or part-time correspondent accredited to a United States news organization. In November 1977, his successor, Adm. Stansfield Turner, put this prohibition in writing. The Turner regulation provided that the C.I.A. would not employ journalists for intelligence work but unwisely said exceptions could be made with the specific approval of the C.I.A. director.
Admiral Turner says that during the 1980 Iranian crisis, the agency considered making such an exception but that it did not prove necessary. No waivers have been approved by the current Director, according to the C.I.A. There is no information on waivers during the intervening years.
The prohibition on paying accredited journalists for intelligence work should be absolute. The same applies to issuing bogus press credentials to a covert agent. Such a firewall is essential, first of all, to protect foreign correspondents, whose job of questioning and probing makes them especially vulnerable to arrest by hostile regimes.
But more broadly, using reporters as agents offends and confounds the principles of American democracy. Under constitutional protections, the press is the chronicler of and check on government, not its instrument. If the United States Government does not honor that distinction, who anywhere will believe that it really exists?