‘CIA John’ Story on Bin Laden Killer Pits New York Observer Against Government, Journalism


On July 5, the Associated Press reported about “John,” a “career CIA analyst” who helped track down Osama Bin Laden. “In the hunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist,” the AP wrote, “there may have been no one more important.” They didn’t use his name, for fear of “retribution,” but the AP noted that he’s in the famous Situation Room photograph taken during the Bin Laden raid. John Young of found pictures of the CIA agent in question a few days later and then John Cook at Gawker showed them to a larger audience (thereby pissing off Fox News and many more). What no one knew yet (or had decided not to make public) was the man’s name. Until now! Almost. In their cover story tomorrow, the New York Observer lets everyone know they have the name, but spends 3,640 words describing why they chose not to publish it.

The Observer was supposedly just out drinking and happened upon the CIA agent’s identity: “An acquaintance volunteered that he recognized the man in the photo and proceeded to put a name to the face.”

What follows are some facts about the man, the first batch of which were gathered by the Observer with Google or social networks and some subsequent research: he’s tall; played basketball in college; had a 3.5 G.P.A.; lives in Virginia; has a son who plays lacrosse, a wife who coordinated the science fair, and his father is a college professor.

Later, we learn from coworkers that “John” is:

… an extraordinarily modest man, soft-spoken and eager to remain clear of any limelight, the kind of guy who’s at his desk by 6 a.m. and whose primary hobbies are coaching his kids’ various sports teams and shooting hoops with the other men at his local parish–though he has yet to play with the president. He enjoys “the simple pleasures,” as a source close to him put it, “of any average Washington suburbanite.”

There’s also one anecdote, the claim that John is “an effective manager,” and not much else: “Those close to him were hard-pressed to come up with quirks or personal details.”

But the second batch of John details — modest, effective, etc. — came only after the Observer agreed not to out John, who was made “covert” after the CIA learned the Observer knew his first and last name. The newspaper writes:

In the end, an official suggested that we might want to talk to some of John’s associates, off the record. That is, if we agreed not to print John’s name, even his first name.

We took the deal. The name was of no consequence to us. Moreover, the question seemed worth asking–and we were suddenly in a position to ask it: Who was this John?

But the story does little to illuminate who John is. Besides the bits we’ve summarized above — which you can read in full here — the other 3,000 or so words of the piece amount to a self-referential media story about how to perform acts of journalism, when to hold back and why, raising some complicated questions. For instance:

How does a relatively small newspaper go about reporting on the United States government and specifically, the Central Intelligence Agency? Well, first by simply using the internet, the Observer answers, noting that the ease of finding information is a bit frightening, while also wondering if “a collection of bumbling bureaucrats” put at risk a CIA agent who wasn’t supposed to be outed.

Or was this some reverse psychology, CIA trickery and “John” was supposed to be outed all along for positive press about an American hero?

Would the Observer be putting John and his family at risk by publishing his name? Moreso than the already-public photos or Observer-provided details of his personal life?

Was the “deal” to not use John’s name in exchange for interview time with not-so-descriptive “associates” worth it for the Observer? Is that even ethical? Does it become more ethical because the Observer disclosed the conditions of said deal?

Careful consideration is given, but concrete answers are hard to come by.