On July 31, three former UC Berkeley students were arrested by
Iranian authorities in the mountains near the border between Iran and
Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, Shane Bauer, 27, of Emeryville; Joshua F.
Fattal, 27, of Cottage Grove, Oregon; and Sarah E. Shourd, 31, of
Oakland, have been held in Iran’s Evin prison. Their families say the
three may have accidentally crossed an unmarked border during a hiking
trip. However, this month an Iranian prosecutor said he is charging
them with being spies for the US government.
Like most in our country, I am appalled by Iran’s current
leadership. They are descendants of the fascists who murdered many
Iranian students, including some I knew, who had jubilantly returned
home from exile after the end of the regime of dictator Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi. Those students had hoped to build a new and progressive Iran
and believed that things were turning for the good in their suffering
Consequently, I have much sympathy for the three hikers and share
the anguish of their families and friends, who vehemently reject the
notion that they are spies. However, much of the blame for their
plight, and for the similar detention of US journalists Laura Ling and
Euna Lee in North Korea, must go to those in our government who will
not renounce the use of journalists as spies.
US government officials predictably claimed that the three are not
spies and said they were seized solely as pawns in the geopolitical
chess game between Iran, the United States, and other nations. The
problem with this argument is that our government never admits anyone
is a spy, and has indeed been known to use journalists as spies. So why
should Iranians believe Hillary Clinton’s crocodile tears on behalf of
the three hikers?
Iran, you will remember, is where our CIA staged a coup in 1953,
leading to the overthrow of a democratic government and the
installation of Pahlavi, the aforementioned Shah of Iran. Even former
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has admitted that “it is easy to
see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by
America in their internal affairs.” As to what the United States is
doing today in Iran, many with knowledge assert that US operatives are
trying to destabilize the government. New Yorker writer Seymour
Hersh has asserted this, as has former Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter.
And, earlier this year, former US National Security Advisor Brent
Scowcroft said that the US government has spies at work in Iran.
Iranian authorities are surely to blame with regard to these three
hikers, but it cannot be denied that our country’s foreign policy is
the catalyst for their continued detention. CIA involvement in
clandestine “regime change” abroad has seldom affected American
travelers personally. But as the global stroke of the United States
continues to shrink along with our empire, our government’s behavior
will create more and more problems for its citizens, especially in the
wake of our post-9/11 activities. Everyday citizens are starting to
Other countries feel more emboldened to stand up to the acts of the
United States, as 23 Americans found this out earlier this month when
an Italian court convicted them for their participation in a CIA-backed
kidnapping in Milan. These Americans plucked Egyptian-born Osama
Mustafa Hassan Nasr off the streets of Milan and flew him to Egypt
where, he claimed, he was subjected to brutal torture that included
having live electronic prods applied to his genitals. What was the
defense used by the Americans? It was that their activities were
approved in Washington. The Italian prosecutor called on the court to
reject this “Nuremburg defense,” and the judge did.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement on
behalf of the three hikers, calling the allegations that they were
spies “outrageous.” While I do not know what reporting they were doing
in the area, Bauer is an experienced journalist who has written for
several local and national publications. Artful and progressive
reporting by the other two can be found on several web sites.
The problem with all this is that is seems likely that our country
does use journalists as spies and has spies pose as journalists. That
makes it much harder for the families in this case to prove that these
three were not, and causes problems for American journalists at a time
we need more reporting from the places where US soldiers are being sent
to fight and die.
This issue has been repeatedly raised in Washington, with little to
show for it. In 1976, a Senate committee headed by Frank Church found
that more than fifty American journalists had worked clandestinely as
CIA agents during the Cold War. Their final report called on the CIA to
declare that this would never happen again. During the Clinton
administration, the Senate held hearings on the use of journalists as
spies and an array of prominent journalists asked the CIA to confirm
that it would never involve journalists in spying. The CIA refused to
do so. In 1996, the head of the Committee to Protect Journalists said
in a report that the CIA’s stance “may have led some foreign leaders to
believe that the CIA and leading US policy-makers are actively urging
an end to official constraints on the use of journalist for espionage.”
In 2001 the Washington Post ran a story about a “high-level”
defector from the Taliban who said that he had been visited two or
three times by American intelligence agents posing as journalists.
There can be little doubt that since 9/11, the CIA and other
intelligence-gathering services of this country feel more freedom to
engage in such activities.
Now would be a good time for the government to revisit this issue.
In the meantime, we are holding our breath, hoping for a safe return of
the three. In October, their mothers presented a petition signed by
more than 2,500 people to the Iranian Mission in New York asking for
the release of the hikers. A web site dedicated to their freedom can be
found at FreetheHikers.org.