Dangerous decisions

Until the Guardian named Raymond Davis as a CIA employee last Monday, 21 February, newspapers and news agencies in the US were reluctant to do so.

They say that they knew that Davis, now in a Lahore prison after he allegedly shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, worked for the CIA but had been asked by the agency and government to keep it under wraps because his life might be at risk if his job was divulged.

It is one of the most powerful ethical questions a newspaper has to face: whether to publish information that may endanger a life.

Such decisions are not as rare as readers may think and are not confined to events of high drama on an international stage. It is not unknown for journalists at court to be told by a distressed relative of the person in the dock that publication of the case will lead to the death of the defendant, either at their own hands or at the hands of others. It is not an idle remark.

The different approach of the Guardian in naming Davis – who had been described as a diplomat by President Obama, and who is now at the centre of a diplomatic tug of war after the killings on 27 January – to other newspapers puzzled a few readers. So why did we decide to name him as a CIA agent, and were we right to do it?

The Guardian’s correspondent in Islamabad, an experienced journalist, investigated and wrote the story. He said:

“We took the CIA’s suggestion that Davis would be at risk if we ran the story very seriously. I interviewed the Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah, who described the conditions of Davis’s incarceration. He said there were teams of dedicated guards and Punjab rangers deployed outside the prison, and visits from embassy personnel. I also interviewed a senior intelligence official who said ‘all possible measures’ were being taken to ensure his safety, including moving 25 jihadi prisoners to other facilities.”

Our correspondent also spoke to human rights groups about the conditions in the prison and what was happening in there.

But the deciding factor was that Davis’s CIA link wasn’t actually a very big secret in Pakistan. For days newspapers had been describing him as a spy; by Sunday morning, 20 February, the headline in one of Pakistan’s national newspapers, The Nation, was “Raymond Davis linked to CIA”.

“Those who might wish to harm Davis – inside the prison, or outside – had already made up their minds about who he was or what he represented. They don’t need our story to motivate them,” our correspondent said.

A CIA spokesman made strenuous efforts over the weekend to persuade Ian Katz, the Guardian’s deputy editor in charge of news, that identifying Davis as a CIA agent would be wrong. The agency’s case broadly was that attempts to release Davis were delicate and tying him to the CIA would only “fan the flames”. MI5 also called the Guardian to ask them not to specifically link Davis to the CIA. Katz discussed the issue with Alan Rusbridger, the editor in chief. He said:

“We came to the view that his CIA-ness was a critical part of the story, bound to be a factor in his trial or in attempts to have him released. The reasons we were given for not naming him were, firstly, that it may complicate his release – that is not our job. If he was held hostage other factors would kick in but he is in the judicial process. The other reason given by the CIA was that he would come to harm in prison.”

Katz said the story was about how the CIA behaved abroad and that all the Guardian’s investigative work suggested that the Pakistanis were taking exceptional care to keep the agent safe. It’s completely clear that the assumption in Pakistan is that he is CIA so the question was, what’s the marginal risk created by confirming his role?

The correspondent believes the Pakistanis have good reason to ensure Davis’s safety above and beyond the levels required by international agreements regarding the health and safety of prisoners awaiting trial.

“The realpolitik is that Davis has become a bargaining chip in an acrimonious spy-v-spy game between the ISI [Pakistan’s military agency] and the CIA. He is of little worth to the Pakistanis dead, and they know that if he comes to any harm they will be instantly blamed, no matter the circumstances – something that would do massive damage to a relationship that, despite the hot rhetoric at the moment, is key to both countries.”

Having said that, the reporter knows that no one can be certain that the prisoner will remain safe or that if harm does come to him the newspaper will or will not share responsibility.

There is also a faint echo here of the Wallis Simpson story. When the US divorcee began a relationship with Prince Edward, scandalising the world, you could read all about it everywhere except in England, where the press colluded with the establishment to keep it from the people.

Would the Guardian have taken a different decision had the agent been an MI6 operative? Rusbridger and Katz wouldn’t speculate, nor would they respond to the question of what happens if Davis is harmed.

Rusbridger said: “We were asked by the British government not to run the Yemeni cables during the WikiLeaks investigation because it would undermine the fight against Islamists. We refused. Two months later that looks like the right decision.”

It is impossible for newspapers to operate in any effective way without sometimes having to make decisions that could lead to physical harm or reputational damage. The role of newspapers is not to duck them but to apply a set of ethical tests against as much information as they can find – which I think happened in this case – and then bear the consequences.

This column was originally published in The Guardian on Feb. 28, 2011.

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