NEW YORK -- Bill Harlow, who is the spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that rarely speaks and is even more rarely forthcoming, is apparently one of the more candid of his breed. Last weekend he was called by Judith Miller of The New York Times and asked why CNN rather than the CIA was able to find 250 videotapes, somewhere in Afghanistan, that seem to be an authentic archive of the terrorist activities of al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Said Harlow: "There are more of them in Afghanistan than there are of us, and they are paid better."
Mercifully, the Times used the quote in the 32nd paragraph of its report on dogs being gassed and men making bombs, some of them in training films for terrorists. People in the White House are too busy to read long stories, so the president's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, spinning like a top, could say that the important thing about the tapes and stories was that: "This is a good reminder to the people of the world that these are the type of people that we are facing in the war on terrorism."
That's true, these are bad people, but we knew that and were talking about it already. What was more striking and known to few people, including presidents, was the CIA's admission that journalism, even television journalism, often and publicly presents a better picture of the world as it is than do our intelligence agencies. Sometimes it seems that the CIA's top-secret multi-multibillion-dollar budget exists to allow high officials in both the White House and Congress to answer questions about, say Iraq, with a wink: "If you knew what we knew, you wouldn't question what we are saying and doing."
Over the years, I have asked three presidents, a vice president, and a dozen or so well-placed members of Congress whether they got more information from the intelligence agencies than from The New York Times. All of them except for new members of intelligence committees in the Senate and the House, who are dazzled by their first "top secret" briefings, answered, "The Times." Bill Clinton gave that answer, saying that every once in a while the CIA scooped the newspapers, particularly on matters of timing. "Sometimes," he said, while he was still in office, "the CIA was about 24 hours ahead of the press or interpreted events differently."
The point here is not that the press is so great. In fact, the weakness of the press was almost certainly a factor in the nation's ignorance about the looming dangers of organizations like al-Qaida around the world. With the decline of the Soviet Union and communism itself, and the rise of budget-cutters and profit-maximizers at newspapers and television news organizations, American news operations called home their correspondents in Asia, Africa and even in Europe.
The theory (or rationale) was that the world could be covered by "parachuting" correspondents from New York or London into the war or outrage of the week, into massacres and natural disasters. The background of the parachuters often was no more than a briefing on how to pronounce or spell the names in the news. Most of the film we saw on television during those years came from British or other foreign sources, which was the reason channel-surfers moving from one news show to another saw the same pictures everywhere over the voices of different anchormen and the parachuters.
Harwood, of the CIA, as candid as he may be, still suffers from having lousy intelligence on the news business. CNN, in fact, has only 10 people in Afghanistan. The CIA, which refuses to talk about such things (in the name of national security), probably has hundreds working in and on Afghanistan -- and some of them are probably being paid more than they're worth.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600