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by J. Bigwood
Wednesday, Jul. 11, 2001 at 4:19 PM
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):
THE ACCIDENTAL SPY
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A photojournalist, distressed that a "State Department" official has been examining his unpublished photographs, files a flurry of FOIAs in an effort to find out what's up.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,
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
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
Jeremy Bigwood is an investigative reporter and freelance photographer based
in Washington, D.C. This article was funded in part by the Fund for
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
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
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.
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