A common pretext when human-rights-abusing regimes arrest and detain journalists is to accuse them of being spies for a hostile power. In many cases such accusations are baseless.
For example, there was the time in 2012 when two Welsh freelancers working for the Iranian-owned channel Press TV were detained by one of the many anti-Gadaffi militias that now run Libya. Gareth Montgomery-Johnson and Nicholas Davies-Jones were held for four weeks by a group that apparently did not want its abuses exposed.
The fighters seemed to have confused the Welsh language with Hebrew, since they accused the pair of being Israeli spies. But more likely this was just a pretext, since the team had done work exposing the militia's persecution and ethnic cleansing of black Libyans.
However, there is no doubt whatsoever that western governments have sought to foster extremely close connections with the press. This contact ranges from manipulation, often in the guise of "exclusive" access to "insider" anonymous sources; to deeper connections and infiltrations.
British intelligence services, in fact, have a long history of infiltrating the press with their agents, or recruiting journalists to their cause. Kim Philby, the famous KGB double agent who worked at the highest levels of MI6 (the spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was inspired by Philby's story), was a journo spook. He worked for The Observer and The Economist in Beirut.
While utterly unethical and harmful to the safety of journalists everywhere, the tactic makes sense from a utilitarian point of view. Journalists, especially those in the mainstream media with enough resources to do so, travel a lot, and will tend to flood into a country when a war is on. This gives western intelligence agents a good cover story. They send their people in, and, posing as journalists, they gain access where others can not.
This month, a fascinating new example of this came to light.
The French journalist Roger Auque posthumously came out as a Mossad agent. He confessed in a new book to having also worked for the French and the Americans. Auque died of cancer in September, but this month his final book detailed his work for the spy agencies. An obsequious and nauseatingly glamorised article posted on the Israeli website Ynet this weekend summarised the main revelations in the French book.
Auque was held captive by Hizballah in Lebanon in the 1980s, and was later recruited by the Mossad, who thought his experiences there could help them gain access in Lebanon and Syria.
"During that time I established very close ties with Israel," Auque wrote in his biography, according to Ynet. "I would travel there a lot. I wasn't just a journalist.
"The Israeli intelligence services paid me to complete certain missions, such as secret missions in Syria under the cover of a reporter … I travelled to Damascus a number of times in order to make contact with the local elite, doctors, researchers and others … Every time I would get the equivalent to a month's wage."
Auque later claimed in an interview to have helped the Mossad, around about the year 2000, to find Hizballah military chief Imad Mughniyeh, who he said he once interviewed. This may have been empty boasting on Auque's part, but it is certainly true that the Israelis played a part in the CIA-led assassination of Mughniyeh in 2008.
Later, with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Auque was the Baghdad correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahrnoth (which Ynet is the website version of). But he went by the fake name Pierre Boudry. The Ynet article neglects to mention what Auque got up to in Iraq, where here reported from until 2006.
A Google search for the name "Pierre Boudry" focused on the Ynet website turns up only one result: this article about Auque's posthumous confession. This means that Auque's dispatches were either never uploaded to the English site of Ynet (according to Internet Archive records, the site appears to have been launched in December 2004) or have been since removed.
Auque later went into right-wing French politics, and was assigned as a French diplomat to Eritrea. Western intelligence agents often use the diplomatic cover of their embassies to disguise their spy operations in the country. The Israeli "diplomat" expelled from Britain in 2010 (in the wake of a bungled Israeli assassination plot in Dubai that involved fake British passports) was widely assumed to be a Mossad officer.
Whatever Auque got up to during his shady assignments in Iraq and elsewhere, the unscrupulous manipulation by Israeli and other Western intelligence agencies of the press needs to end.
This strategy is fundamentally unhealthy to democracy. And the posing of spies as journalists puts all of us in danger – especially those who work on the ground in conflict zones. Armed groups and embattled governments and regimes are already suspicious enough of outsiders without giving them genuine reasons to suspect journalists of being spies.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.