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A TAINT OF SUSPICION ON REPORTERS

House members apparently don't understand the dangers faced each day by foreign journalists - many of whom labor under the vengeful, suspicious and often deadly eye of an authoritarian government.

Otherwise, they surely would not have passed a bill allowing CIA agents to pose as foreign journalists or to recruit them for covert duties.Much of the attention following the vote Wednesday focused on the bill's prohibition against using American journalists. Though the prohibition helps, the second half of the equation is just as important.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a record 182 journalists were in prison in 22 countries at the end of 1995. Nearly all of them were there because they wrote something offensive to the ruling regime or were suspected of working to subvert the government. In addition, 51 journalists were killed, 45 of them in political assassinations.

A separate report by the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels put the number of dead at more than 60.

Attacks on journalists seem to be most prevalent in Turkey, Ethiopia, China, Kuwait, Vietnam, Peru, Myanmar and Nigeria - a list that fairly represents the world's biggest trouble spots.

Many of these journalists are struggling heroically to publicize human rights abuses in their countries. The last thing they need is the added suspicion that they may be spies for the United States.

CIA Director John Deutch has said he has no plans to use journalists as agents except under extraordinary circumstances. But if Congress approves of the practice, that would be more than enough to taint thousands of reporters worldwide.

This is more than simply a matter of defending the integrity of a profession. It is a matter of national security. Courageous, independent journalists can be instrumental in toppling oppressive governments, and that could further the interests of the United States. But it works best if the reporters are above suspicion.

The measure, part of a larger resolution on the overall CIA budget, ought to be amended in the Senate to outlaw journalists as spies under all circumstances.