Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Scenario: Betraying a Source in the Service of National Security

Typical organisational structure of a terroris...
Typical organisational structure of a terrorist cell. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Greater Middle East
Greater Middle East (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You are an experienced reporter covering the Middle East. After cultivating key sources for months, you are able to make arrangements to interview a terrorist leader, one at the top of the U.S. list of most dangerous. You will meet your contact in a public place and then, blindfolded, be driven to a rendezvous with the terrorist leader.

The U.S. military somehow learns of this and asks you to have a state-of-the-art tracking device implanted in your buttock. They 'guarantee'  it cannot be detected by any device designed to uncover such trickery.

You will be tracked to the rendezvous. After your interview is over and you are clear, the military will swoop in and kill or subdue the terrorist leader. The military are confident you will never be in danger - or at least no more danger than you have placed yourself by undertaking such an interview in the first place.

Class assignment: What do you do and why, starting with your initial gut reaction?


Emily L B said...

My gut reaction is still to go along with the implant-plan, but I think that this is only because of a vigilante-esque idea of making a difference in taking down part of a terrorist organization, and has less to do with professional journalism ethics. Robertson's email about spy-journalists during apartheid is what swayed me on this issue, inclining me to side with inaction (especially due to the journalist's quote about deception to "win the hearts and minds of the people," which I find morally wrong.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Interesting that my gut reaction is not based on some sort of 'moral instinct' or - as Emily so nicely puts it - on the initial vigilante (fight for flight?) instinct based on citizenship and self preservation. It's a kind of tribal thing, the tribe of the independent journalist part of a fellowship, and a mission, that transcends nationality. One inhaled it as part of the job. Now, having the impulse, one has to defend it.

Nanette Asimov said...

Is this person a reporter or a spy? Consider some consequences. If it became known that reporters engaged in spying activities (and how would the connection not be clear to people under the above scenario), in what ways woulld that impact the trust level for future reporters trying to interview sources? Would you want to be the reporter interviewing people in that region after this incident?

svcastaneda said...

My gut reaction is not to follow along with the plan. I think that part of it is self-preservation and concern for myself and the other part of me wouldn't want to jeopardize the relationship and trust that I've formed with my sources. If the plan were to go off without a hitch and the terrorist would be killed/arrested and I'd survive, no other high-profile source would trust me after this instance in the future.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

from USF grad and veteran SFChron reporter Carl Nolte

Interesting assignment, though unlikely. Of course, I would never do such a thing. Never.
Though I have been in the middle east, on a couple of occasions, I have never been offered a chance to interview a terrorist leader. If I were offered such an opportunity, I would be very wary. Might be kidnaped, held for ransom. Or killed. So I would be hesitant Very.
And if someone else—say the cia or some other agency—presented the offer you outline, I would not accept it. two reasons: all you have is an assurance that the device is not detectible. A doubtful assurance. Two: it would be completely unethical to agree to do an interview and as a result collaborate in the killing of a suspect. The killing itself is immoral and illegal, and the circumstances even worse.
I am no secret agent, but I have felt uneasy, off my myself in some godforsaken town with no protection. I was picked up once by the Saudi secret police, and questioned twice. Also shot at by unknown forces, possibly the Palestine liberation army. Luckily, they were bad shots.
-carl nolte

....J.Michael Robertson said...

a former Chron reporter shares this:

A man of sound judgment would never find himself in this fix. If he did, he would recommend the poisoned chalice be passed to another. But as a thought experiment, it should tie your young people in knots. Guy Grand (a man of your ripe years will recognize the name) would rise in salute. At the right moment, throw consequentialism into the hopper and sit back to enjoy their dismay.

Alexandra Minnick said...

My gut reaction is a resounding negative. I think this is just an initial selfish concern for my personal safety. Upon deeper consideration, I realized that this is not a journalist's job. Like Nanette said, a journalist is not a spy--those are two different occupations. An ethical reporter is transparent. Not to mention, you would never be able to work that beat again if you went through with it.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Burning sources is risky. Killing them..? It would be interesting to ask reporters how often they have been able to place themselves in dangerous situations because participants respect the job of journalists and the degree to which journalists behave decently, honestly - ethically.