The Guardian's readers' editor Chris Elliott explains in his Open Door column today why the paper took the decision to name Raymond Davis, the American who allegedly shot dead two men in Lahore, triggering a diplomatic crisis between Pakistan and the US, as a CIA agent.
Pakistani authorities charged Davis with murder, but the Obama administration has insisted he is an "administrative and technical official" attached to its Lahore consulate and has diplomatic immunity.
The Guardian went ahead and published despite being urged not to by the CIA amd MI5.
Elliott says until the Guardian named Davis as a CIA employee on 21 February, newspapers and news agencies in the US were reluctant to do so because they had been asked by the agency and government to keep it under wraps because his life might be at risk if his job was divulged.
He writes: "It is one of the most powerful ethical questions a newspaper has to face: whether to publish information that may endanger a life."
Elliott adds: "Davis's CIA link wasn't actually a very big secret in Pakistan. For days newspapers had been describing him as a spy; by Sunday morning, 20 February, the headline in one of Pakistan's national newspapers, The Nation, was "Raymond Davis linked to CIA".'
According to Elliott, "A CIA spokesman made strenuous efforts over the weekend to persuade Ian Katz, the Guardian's deputy editor in charge of news, that identifying Davis as a CIA agent would be wrong. The agency's case broadly was that attempts to release Davis were delicate and tying him to the CIA would only "fan the flames". MI5 also called the Guardian to ask them not to specifically link Davis to the CIA."
Katz says: "We came to the view that his CIA-ness was a critical part of the story, bound to be a factor in his trial or in attempts to have him released. The reasons we were given for not naming him were, firstly, that it may complicate his release – that is not our job. If he was held hostage other factors would kick in but he is in the judicial process. The other reason given by the CIA was that he would come to harm in prison."
Katz adds the story was about how the CIA behaved abroad and that all the Guardian's investigative work suggested that the Pakistanis were taking exceptional care to keep the agent safe.
Elliott says: "There is also a faint echo here of the Wallis Simpson story. When the US divorcee began a relationship with Prince Edward, scandalising the world, you could read all about it everywhere except in England, where the press colluded with the establishment to keep it from the people."
He concludes: "It is impossible for newspapers to operate in any effective way without sometimes having to make decisions that could lead to physical harm or reputational damage. The role of newspapers is not to duck them but to apply a set of ethical tests against as much information as they can find – which I think happened in this case – and then bear the consequences."
- Elliott also quotes Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger stating: "We were asked by the British government not to run the Yemeni cables during the WikiLeaks investigation because it would undermine the fight against Islamists. We refused. Two months later that looks like the right decision."