AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 2001

The Accidental Spy?   

A photojournalist, distressed that a "State Department" official has been examining his unpublished photographs, files a flurry of FOIAs in an effort to find out what's up.

By Jeremy Bigwood
Jeremy Bigwood is an investigative reporter and freelance photographer based in Washington, D.C.     

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I N THE FILM "UNDER FIRE," the lead character is a photojournalist who goes behind the lines in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas, guerrillas fighting the U.S.-backed regime in power. To gain that access, the journalist first had to convince the Sandinistas that the images he was taking in their secret base camps would be used only to tell their story. He was horrified to later learn that the CIA had gained access to his images and that Nicaraguan security forces were using them to identify and kill the same people whose trust he had engendered.

Life imitated art for me in the late 1980s when I was a freelance photojournalist based in San Salvador. I air-freighted hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film to the New York office of Gamma Liaison, one of the world's top photo agencies. This was the most exciting and stimulating work I have ever done. The agency sold my color slide pictures to magazines including Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Der Spiegel and Der Stern. (I also shot black-and-white and color print images for newspapers including San Francisco's Chronicle and Examiner, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe.) From 1984 to 1994, I regularly covered El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and southern Mexico.

I kept a post office box in the United States and picked up my mail there about every three to six months. In October 1988, I was surprised to see "U.S. dept. of" listed under publication name on my check stub for my only sale in August, a "lost slide." The image was of Salvadoran President Jos¨Ž Napoleon Duarte and a Salvadoran police general, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova. (Vides Casanova was recently acquitted in U.S. civil court of having ordered the 1980 rape and murder of three American Catholic nuns and one missionary.) I was not so upset about losing the slide. But what was the U.S. government doing with my images?

El Salvador was in its eighth year of civil war. The United States was backing the Salvadoran government against leftist rebels and giving the military more than $1 million a day in aid. I cashed my fee to fly from Seattle to New York to find out who was accessing my slides.

I was stunned at what I learned. By examining the list of clients who had checked out the images on the manila envelopes containing the "shoots," it became clear that every one of my pictures since 1984--thousands of color slides from throughout Central America--had been checked out and removed from Gamma by a U.S. government official who claimed to represent the State Department. The official removed them through a research fee arrangement that was common in the business. Photo agency clients such as Time and Newsweek routinely paid a $45 one-time fee to have in-house researchers check out images of a particular subject. They were sent by courier to their publication offices, where their photo desk would decide whether they wanted to purchase the rights to publish any of them. Gamma kept the full $45 research fee, as was standard practice. Until a check for publication or a lost slide was issued, the photographer had no idea who was reviewing the images.

The State Department was examining and removing my slides under the same arrangement, but it made it easier for Gamma by sending a representative there at least once a week. After going through my stock, I perused my colleagues' to see if their work had been checked out by State. Indeed, the department had also reviewed and taken out the images of Paulo Bosio, who covered Nicaragua, and the late John Hoagland, my Gamma predecessor in El Salvador. (He was killed covering a firefight in 1984.)

As I walked out of the office, I ran into an acquaintance, one of Gamma's New York photographers. He said that everyone in the agency knew the State Department representative, "a very nice woman" named Mary Beth MacDonald. The next day I met with Gamma's executive director at the New York office, Jennifer Coley. She explained that MacDonald came by every week to check out many photographers' images and send them to the State Department, and had been doing so for years. What she was doing was completely legal. Coley offered me the option to make my images off-limits to the State Department if I wished, and I did so. But even though my photos were marked "No Government Perusal or Use," MacDonald could have ignored that request because she went through the files unsupervised, said Gamma's Allen Stephens.

I RETURNED TO EL SALVADOR in late October 1988. Over the next four months, I traveled from El Salvador to Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala and spoke with many fellow photographers. More than a few told me that the State Department was no different from any other client and that there was no cause for alarm. Any news about the matter would only make their already dangerous jobs even more unsafe, they argued. One American photo agency photographer based in Nicaragua told me that he already knew about the practice and that I shouldn't worry about it. "It's all just a part of doing business," he said.

But I was thoroughly disquieted by the implications. It would have been much different had I been a wire service photographer, who only sent a couple of edited images of a given event. But I was sending entire rolls of film, lots of them, that could be seen by a U.S. government representative before I would see them, let alone edit them. It would be the equivalent of a reporter turning over his notes.

The issue here was not that the government could view published pictures. It was the sheer mass of unedited film that concerned me. By analyzing the sequence of photographs, someone could see where I had been and whom I had talked to. This could have been dangerous for the people I had photographed. It was no secret that the same government that was analyzing my photographs was underwriting the elimination of many of the people I was photographing, often acting through proxies to do the dirty work. Had I been a poorly paid, unwitting spy?

I lived with two colleagues who frequently accompanied me into Salvadoran rebel zones. Frank Smyth reported for CBS radio and Tom Gibb for the BBC. They and other San Salvador-based photojournalists were alarmed to learn that the U.S. government was reviewing Gamma's images. We all knew that news of the practice could put journalists at risk. They were slightly concerned about what this might do to their safety and reputations as journalists, as they had frequently traveled with me.

But Smyth and Gibb were far more worried about the ramifications of this practice on journalism. If journalists unwittingly violated the tacit agreement with their sources that they were independent, and ignored the concept of protection of sources, they eventually would be considered spies. And if they were perceived as spies, then they would eventually only have access to one side in a conflict.

Because I still had my concerns, I stopped sending the agency sensitive images, such as guerrilla collaborators. To do that, I sometimes carried three cameras, making sure I didn't shoot sensitive photos on the same film that I'd be sending to the agency.

Still, I felt violated. I wondered if I had unknowingly put any of my previous subjects in danger. Take my trips into Salvadoran guerrilla strongholds, where to gain access I had earned the trust of many combatants and civilians alike. I had images of one woman cooking and her children playing on the same rolls of film that I had images of armed guerrillas--including her son and his uncle. I had several pictures of scenery that would, in a small country such as El Salvador, give away locations. Coming out of guerrilla zones, I always feared that the Salvadoran military might try to confiscate my film, as they had done with other photographers, so I routinely hid the most sensitive rolls beneath the padding in the bottom of my camera bag.

Looking back, I realized that I began to receive indications as early as the summer of 1987 that my film might be getting into the wrong hands, despite my precautions. I had the opportunity to travel with CIA-trained elite Salvadoran military forces grouped into small units known as Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, or PRALs given their Spanish acronym. The military press office told me that I was the first photojournalist to shoot Salvadoran government PRALs (and the last, it turned out). PRALs were known by their enemies as the most dangerous government troops, using special weapons and often appearing bearded and dressed as guerrillas.

Even though months passed before any of my photographs of them were published, something surprising occurred just a few weeks after the PRAL shoot. An employee of the Salvadoran military press office, Mauricio Miranda, told me that my photos of the elite unit had been captioned incorrectly as guerrillas. "How do you know?" I asked. He said he just knew and refused to explain why. With the Salvadoran press office, one did not have the option of making demands or using the Freedom of Information Act. They controlled your access in the country--they controlled your career.

A few months later, and more than a year before I learned about the State Department's access, I was photographing a protest in front of the Salvadoran military High Command headquarters in San Salvador by people whose family members had disappeared. I took tight shots of the crowd and the riot police across the street before I walked away to take a long shot of the scene. Three protesters walked up to me. After brief introductions, one of them asked me who I was, who I was taking pictures for and whether I was working for the U.S. government or the CIA. Almost indignantly, I said that I worked for Gamma Liaison, a journalistic outfit that sells its pictures to magazines worldwide, and that it would not do business with the U.S. government. He seemed satisfied, and they moved on.

Not long after the San Salvador demonstration, I ran into a European ambassador at the airport whom I knew reasonably well. He had been a diplomatic observer at recent peace talks between the Salvadoran government and the guerrillas I had photographed. He told me, surprisingly, that my pictures of the talks, along with the subsequent return of the insurgents to the countryside, had come out well. I thanked him, thinking that he might have seen some of the published images in Europe. But he added, "Do you know who you are taking pictures for?" I asked him what he meant, and he smiled and excused himself. I later asked a mutual friend of ours if she knew what he meant. She indicated that she did, although she refused to tell me.

After my discovery at Gamma's New York office a year later, however, the mystery became clear. While my slides were now probably off-limits for U.S. government use, MacDonald no doubt still enjoyed access to many photographers' pictures without their knowledge. My colleagues and I debated what to do during the months leading up to El Salvador's March 1989 presidential elections. Smyth was writing a story for the Village Voice, and he told his editor, Dan Bischoff, about MacDonald and Gamma Liaison. Bischoff assigned reporters Bill Gifford and Rick Hornung to the story.

The reporters reached MacDonald at the Gamma office. She said she was working, according to the article, for the State Department's Graphics Service office, which Gifford and Hornung reported had an unlisted number. MacDonald told them she regularly visited Gamma Liaison and four other New York-based photo agencies, sending "dozens of photographs to Washington each week."

"The agencies are very cooperative. They just let me go in and look at their files. I take what I think is interesting and send it down to Washington," MacDonald told the Voice. She added that the photographs she removed from the photo agencies were used for various department publications, including State magazine.

T HE MATTER CONTINUED to vex me even after I finally left Central America in 1994. Later that year, I reviewed every issue of State magazine that was archived at the library of the University of Washington in Seattle. There were no color photographs in any of its issues going back to World War II. (Color was added after I did my research.) Moreover, most of the photos were taken by State Department personnel of embassy events like going-away parties. There were occasional images of department press conferences, but they were credited to individual photographers probably hired by the government. I found no pictures credited to any photo agencies. There were also a small number of images, perhaps 20 over a 60-year period, from wire services.

So where were my images going? Former Washington Post investigative reporter Ronald Kessler, in his 1992 book, "Inside the CIA," reported that among all U.S. government agencies, only the CIA is authorized to allow its employees to identify themselves in the U.S. as representing other parts of the federal government. Was MacDonald actually working for the CIA, and had she merely used the State Department's "Graphics Service" as a cover? The payments to Gamma Liaison were drawn on official checks from the U.S. Treasury Department. MacDonald indeed represented some entity of the federal government, but which one?

I started to read more about the issue. During and after the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s, it was disclosed that certain press companies employing photojournalists had relationships with the CIA and had also spied domestically for the FBI. In a 1977 Rolling Stone article, Carl Bernstein wrote that during the 1950s and '60s, "the Agency obtained carte-blanche borrowing privileges in the photo libraries of literally dozens of American newspapers, magazines and television outlets. For obvious reasons, the CIA also assigned high priority to the recruitment of photojournalists, particularly foreign-based members of network camera crews."

I filed more than 90 Freedom of Information Act requests to 15 U.S. agencies to find out what I could about the government's use of my images. Learning the minutiae of the FOIA and the Privacy Act became a full-time job that lasted more than seven years. The requests, to agencies including the State Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, Defense Department and CIA, included requests on specific photos only I could have taken and economic relations between the U.S. government and photo agencies and the press in general.

I also filed the Privacy Act on myself, which allowed me to ask for files that are held by the government on me. I hoped that perhaps the entity receiving the images would have used my name in a database and thus could be accessed. In addition, in order to determine both the honesty and the nuances of each agency, I filed fabricated FOIA requests that would sound plausible but actually represented times and events that did not exist. I hoped to get all "no-records" responses from these.

MacDonald was not listed as an employee in several editions of the State Department's telephone book, and its switchboard had no record of her, either. The State Department also has an employee locator service to help find past and present employees. But the service had no record of either a "Mary Beth MacDonald" or any other conceivable spelling of her name.

Perhaps she was a State Department contract employee, so I filed another FOIA to find out. MacDonald told the Voice that she worked for the State Department's Graphics Service. There was no Graphics Service listed there, but there was a Graphics Section, which had an office in the basement of the department's main building in Washington, D.C.

One day, while at the department on other business, I took the elevator to the basement and eventually found the Graphics Section. The door was open. A woman inside looked up from her work and said, "Hi." I told her exactly why I was there and handed her a copy of the Village Voice article. She read it once before rereading a part of it again. "It's not us," she said. She told me that her office mainly produced invitations for various State Department social gatherings, and that she had neither the space, the equipment, nor the personnel to copy so many images. She had never heard of either Gamma Liaison or MacDonald. Then she made a sweeping gesture with her hand and said, "You need to look up the river"--an insider reference to CIA headquarters, which are located in Virginia near the Potomac River.

Over the next few years, I began to receive official responses to my FOIA requests. Various Defense Department entities along with the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the DEA, the FBI and the United States Information Agency all replied that they had "no records" pertaining to any of my requests. The false FOIAs I had requested as a control also came back with "no-records" responses, which led me to believe in the veracity of the FOIA offices I was dealing with.

The State Department at first did not give me a clear answer to my requests asking if MacDonald had ever worked there. At some time in the late 1990s, it cancelled my FOIA on MacDonald without notifying me. When I found out, I immediately made another request for the same information. After an exhaustive check of all possible entities, the "no-records" response--meaning they had no record of her ever working there--finally arrived in my mailbox in December. That was seven years after I began filing the FOIAs.

Of the agencies I queried about MacDonald, all gave me the "no records" reply except one--the CIA. The agency said it couldn't tell me whether she worked there: "Section 6 of the CIA Act of 1949 exempts from disclosure ®ęthe organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by the Agency'...[and] Subsection 102(d)(3) of the National Security Act of 1947 requires the Director of Central Intelligence to protect information pertaining to intelligence sources from unauthorized disclosure." The response later quoted exemptions (b)(1) and (b)(3) of the FOIA, which allow the government to withhold material that is "in the interest of national defense or foreign policy" and "properly classified pursuant to such Executive order" and that "applies to the [CIA] Director's statutory obligations to protect from disclosure intelligence sources and methods, as well as the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries or numbers of personnel employed by the Agency."

The CIA also used exemptions to deny me information about my photographs and the transactions between it and Gamma (and also a well-known wire service).

Was MacDonald working for the CIA? We'll probably never know for sure. Photo agency employees say she continued to visit New York photo agencies into the mid-1990s. Tom Crispell, a CIA spokesman, declined comment on MacDonald and the methods the agency uses to get information. At the State Department, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs spokesman Wes Carrington said he can't say for sure if it has any dealings with the photo agencies, and suggested that he would investigate if there had ever been any such relationship. He then said: "Beyond filing Freedom of Information Act requests, I got the impression that they--at least the current people there now--didn't really have a way of going back and checking."

Gamma Liaison now is called Getty Images News Services and is under new ownership. The agency now mainly works with edited film sent through e-mail. Executive Editor Georges DeKeerle says that if the issue came up again, "the U.S. government would be a little more clever than that now, and they would just use other parties. They would probably use a magazine or something. They don't use media the way they used to do 20 years ago."

When I see the images in the newspapers from the present Colombia counterinsurgency conflict, they remind me of my images from Central America in the late 1980s. I hope that the U.S. government/photo agency relationship will not be revived as we enter a new war. And if it were to be revived, I wonder how many decades it would take to find out about it, given the extreme lethargy of our most important oversight tool--the Freedom of Information Act.