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How the US "State Department" used journalists during El Salvador war

by J. Bigwood Wednesday, Jul. 11, 2001 at 4:19 PM

Excerpt: 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,

in this issue (July 2001) of American Journalism Review (AJR):


by Jeremy Bigwood

A photojournalist, distressed that a "State Department" official has been examining his unpublished photographs, files a flurry of FOIAs in an effort to find out what's up.

In 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

"US. 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

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 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 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

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


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


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 US. 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 PRAL given their Spanish acronym. The military

press office told me that I was the first photojournalist to shoot

Salvadoran government PRAL (and the last, it turned out). PRAL 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 US. 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

US. 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 US.

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


"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.

The 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


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


I filed more than 90 Freedom of Information Act requests to 15 US. 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


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 'the

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

US. 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 US. 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.

Jeremy Bigwood is an investigative reporter and freelance photographer based

in Washington, D.C. This article was funded in part by the Fund for

Investigative Journalism.


Close Ties?

Media reports of the cracked firewall between government intelligence and

the press first surfaced in the mid-1970s. That s about when Congress

released the Church Committee report, an investigation of the U.S.

government/media relationship. Another investigation, the Pike Committee

report, was leaked to the Village Voice in 1976 by then-CBS correspondent

Daniel Schorr.

Both reports found that the second-largest category of CIA covert activities

(after election-rigging) was to influence or use the press. At the time,

"the CIA maintained covert relationships with some 50 US. journalists," the

Church Committee report said. The reports did not release the names of any

US. news organizations involved, but did mention Reuters.

In response to public and congressional outcry, then-CIA Director Adm.

Stansfield Turner issued a two-page directive called "New Regulations

Approved on CIA Relations with U.S. News Media." It prohibited the CIA from

entering into relationships with accredited full-or part-time U.S.

journalists for intelligence purposes without senior management approval of

the organization concerned; or entering into any relationships with

nonjournalist staff employees for intelligence purposes; or using the name

of any US. news media or organization to provide cover for any CIA employees

or activities.

However, the directive permits voluntary "open" and "unpaid" relationships

with US. accredited journalists, and also allows journalists "to perform

translating services or to lecture at CIA training courses." It also permits

the CIA director to make any exceptions to the rules. In addition, the CIA's

policy does not apply to freelance journalists or foreign journalists, with

whom they are free to negotiate. The policy remains in effect.


Jeremy Bigwood

3200 16th St. NW #806

Washington, D.C. 20010

(202) 319-9150


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