In tonight’s Colbert Report, Steven Colbert turned me onto a report by Brian Ross, Federal Source to ABC News: We Know Who You’re Calling, about widespread FBI monitoring of reporters’ phone records in order to ferret out government sources who provide confidential information for stories embarrassing to the Bush Administration. Many reporters from various news outlets face the same surveillance:
A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources.
“It’s time for you to get some new cell phones, quick,” the source told us in an in-person conversation.
ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.
Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.
The Bushites have good reason to be mad at annoying journalists for these inconvenient stories:
Our reports on the CIA’s secret prisons in Romania and Poland were known to have upset CIA officials. The CIA asked for an FBI investigation of leaks of classified information following those reports.
People questioned by the FBI about leaks of intelligence information say the CIA was also disturbed by ABC News reports that revealed the use of CIA predator missiles inside Pakistan.
Under Bush Administration guidelines, it is not considered illegal for the government to keep track of numbers dialed by phone customers.
Add to that the Washington Post’s breaking of the CIA secret prison scandal and NYT’s breaking of the NSA surveillance story and you’ve got plenty of good reasons for the G-men to want to snoop on their reporters.
I’m sure there are ways for the media organizations to protect their privacy and circumvent this illegal surveillance. Isn’t it ironic though that this takes journalists into the same “territory” as terrorists. The government gains a technological advantage against the latter. The terrorists find out and adapt accordingly in order to protect themselves. Now, journalists will be doing the same in order to stay one step ahead of the feds. Seems a crying shame that the Bush Administration is so willing to criminalize journalism and treat it as if it’s no different than Al Qaeda.
In a subsequent blog item, FBI Acknowledges: Journalists’ Phone Records are Fair Game, Ross notes that the FBI is using National Security Letters to obtain access to the reporters’ phone call records:
Officials say the FBI makes extensive use of a new provision of the Patriot Act which allows agents to seek information with what are called National Security Letters (NSL).
The NSLs are a version of an administrative subpoena and are not signed by a judge. Under the law, a phone company receiving a NSL for phone records must provide them and may not divulge to the customer that the records have been given to the government.
According to yet another Ross blog post, FBI Secret Probes: 3,501 Targets in the U.S., The Patriot Act “innovated” a new use for NSLs. Before then, they were only used to surveil terrorists. But now, thanks to the spineless Congress which approved the Big Brother Act, thereby allowing itself to be run roughshod over, NSLs have a whole new panoply of uses:
The Department of Justice says it secretly sought phone records and other documents of 3,501 people last year under a provision of the Patriot Act that does not require judicial oversight.
The records were obtained with the use of what are known as National Security Letters, which can be signed by an FBI agent and are only for use in terrorism cases.
The letters require telephone companies to keep secret even the existence of the request for records.
Assistant Attorney General William Moschella told Congress last month that 9,254 National Security Letters were issued in 2005 involving 3,501 people.
Federal law enforcement sources say the National Security Letters are being used to obtain phone records of reporters at ABC News and elsewhere in an attempt to learn confidential sources who may have provided classified information in violation of the law.
That’s progress for you.