Organizations that monitor reporter access and safety overseas are harshly criticizing a Fox News reporter's suggestion that U.S. forces could have posed as journalists in order to more quickly apprehend a recently-captured suspect in the Benghazi attacks.
Earlier today, news broke that following “months of planning,” U.S. Special Operations forces had captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected ringleader of the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Several conservative media figures have criticized the administration for the timing of Khattala's capture. At a State Department press briefing, Fox News reporter James Rosen questioned State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki about why journalists had been able to access Khattala -- several major outlets have published interviews with him since the attacks -- while U.S. forces had still not apprehended him.
After Psaki responded that there was a difference between suspected terrorists wanting to talk to reporters and special forces being able to capture them, Rosen asked, “Following your own logic...why didn't we pose as a reporter to capture him then?”
But organizations that advocate for reporter access and safety overseas told Media Matters such an approach would put legitimate journalists in danger because their credibility would come into question more often.
“Let's recognize that military and intelligence operations should never, ever use journalists as cover,” said Joel Simon, executive director of The Committee to Protect Journalists, which monitors treatment of reporters in foreign outposts and tallies physical and rights abuses of journalists. "Intelligence agents should never use journalistic cover, never because that jeopardizes the work of the media.
Simon and other experts said that military elements posing as journalists could pose a danger to the ethics and safety of legitimate reporters who would be accused of being spies or intelligence plants.
“We see every day all over the world that journalists are accused of being spies and of having ties or supporting military efforts that a particular country is taking,” Simon stressed. “The most important asset that journalists have in those situations is their independence and their impartiality and anything that compromises that or the perception of their impartiality further endangers them.”
Bryan Bender, former president of Military Reporters & Editors and a current MRE board member, agreed.
“I think setting aside for a second the case of this suspect, many of us who cover the Pentagon would have huge concerns if we learned U.S. military was posing as journalists,” said Bender, also a Boston Globe national security reporter. “We'd get upset as we did in Iraq years ago that the military was planting stories in local media to help their cause. It is important to us as journalists and it should be important to the government that we fulfill our unique roles and not confuse one with the other.”
He later added, “If this ever occurred and word got out then obviously journalists would be much more at risk because they would be suspected of being government agents. There is a reason why both journalists and government agencies gave up a long time ago using journalists as a cover for spies and government operatives.”
Kevin Smith, Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee chair, said such an approach hurts journalistic credibility and safety.
“There are two obvious reasons. On the first hand you don't want the military or police agencies or anyone like that impersonating journalists because that puts journalist in harm's way,” he said. "Every journalistic organization when they find out about this opposes it. It raises doubt when a journalist is in a volatile situation, it raises questions about whether they are journalists and puts us in harm's way.
“The second reason is the ethical situation,” Smith added. “Journalists shouldn't be in a situation where they are hiding their identity. That suggests to me that they don't even understand ethical responsibility. It is an illogical question that certainly suggests you do not understand the dynamics of what it takes to be a journalist in a war zone.”