Spies among journalists

In his recent book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre describes the life of the eponymous double agent in the Middle East before, during, and after the Second World War. Naturally, spies did not admit to their real reason for being in Beirut or other cities in the region but hid behind cover jobs that gave them plausible excuses for ferreting out information. Those cover positions were often, not surprisingly, as journalists. Mr. Philby himself collected a paycheck from several newspapers as a stringer besides being paid by the British and Soviet intelligence services. Nor was he the only free-lance journalist to be so employed. Since journalists and spies are basically in the same business—gathering information—this was a common arrangement beneficial to all the organizations involved. And there is no reason to think that this is no longer the case. Which brings us to the current situation in that benighted part of the world and to consider the strange cases of journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, both beheaded by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, commonly known as ISIS.

After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from the University of Massachusetts, Foley enrolled at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Interestingly, Medill also has a branch in Qatar, the Middle Eastern country from which the US runs it operations in that region. After graduating in 2008, Foley went to Iraq as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). From there he applied to become a free-lance journalist embedded with US troops in Afghanistan and, after a short time in that position, was hired by the semi-official US military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

This is where the story starts to get interesting. Two months after taking the job at Stars and Stripes, Foley was arrested by military police in Kandahar on charges of marijuana possession. He admitted to the charge and resigned his position, moving back to the free-lance world as a photojournalist embedded into rebel groups in Libya. During his time in Libya he was detained by government forces but was soon released to resume his work with the rebels. After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, he moved on to Syria where a civil war was raging.

In November 2012, not long after going to Syria, Foley was again captured, this time by a shadowy group reportedly loyal to Syrian President Bashir Assad. The Syrians attempted to collect ransom from his employer, the online newspaper, GlobalPost, and from the US government, neither of which complied. But the most interesting part of the story is that in July 2014, the US military attempted to rescue Foley from Syrian captivity. Ask yourself whether the US government would spend millions of dollars and put dozens of lives at risk to rescue an ordinary citizen who was in Syria in violation of a State Department warning to avoid the country. I find that rather unlikely.

Which, of course, takes us full circle to the common use of journalistic cover for spies. Did Foley work for the CIA? We will probably never know but it is certainly plausible. It is simply not very credible that as an employee of Stars and Stripes Foley would have risked his coveted position for a bit of weed. But that incident would have provided a credible disconnect between him and the US government.

The story of Mr. Sotloff is murkier but equally interesting. Like Foley, he attended an elite private secondary school in New Hampshire. He then pursued but did not receive a degree in journalism at the University of Central Florida. From there he went to Israel to study at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, an institution that appears to have significant connections with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. He next shows up in Qatar studying Arabic after which he traveled around the region in possession of a Yemeni mobile phone and working as a stringer for a variety of magazines and newspapers. During this entire time, the fact that he held dual US/Israeli citizenship was kept secret. Again, it does not take a great leap of logic to suppose that Mr. Sotloff was working undercover for the CIA, Mossad, or both.

Now, I should make perfectly clear that beheading people is a heinous act, even if those people are spies. However, it is important to question the casus belli with which we are presented. If Foley and/or Sotloff were indeed spies, they are to be commended for their extraordinary courage, but their executions by their captors are probably acceptable acts under international law. If, on the other hand, they were what we have been told they were—simply free-lance journalists, however foolhardy —their killings are murder and just cause for retribution. The troubling thing is that we most likely will never know the truth.

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