They Track Journalists, Don’t They?

By Amy Goodman
Democracy Now!
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ABC News reported on Monday that a senior federal law enforcement had revealed that the government is now tracking phone calls made by journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and ABC News. We speak with Brian Ross, chief investigative reporter at ABC News.

On Monday, ABC News reported the government is tracking the phone numbers dialed from major news organizations in an effort to root out confidential government sources that speak to reporters. The media groups include the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC News itself. Government leaks have led to front-page stories detailing the Bush administration’s spy program and the CIA’s network of secret prisons in Eastern Europe. The leaks have greatly angered Bush administration officials.

This revelation comes on the heels of last week’s disclosure that three of the country’s largest telecom companies handed over millions of phone call records to help the National Security Agency build the world’s largest database, comes a new revelation.

We’re joined now by the ABC News reporter who broke this story – someone who may well be a target of this new phase of government monitoring himself. Brian Ross is the Chief Investigative reporter for ABC News. He joins us on the line from New York.

Amy Goodman: We now are joined by ABC News investigative reporter who may well be a target of this new phase of government monitoring, himself. Brian Ross is the investigative reporter for ABC News. He joins us on the line from here in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!

Brian Ross: Thank you very much.

Amy Goodman: It’s good to have you with us. Well, tell us what you’ve learned.

Brian Ross: Well, to start with, we were warned – Rich Esposito and I were warned last week that the government was aware of who we were calling and that we should quickly get new cell phones that didn’t come back to our names. An insider told us, a friendly insider who did not necessarily think this is a good idea. It was clear to us that somehow the government knew our records. We were told our phone calls weren’t being recorded, but just who we were calling. Now, in terms of trying to track down insiders at the government who are providing us with information, that’s really about all they need. That’s how they essentially tracked down Mary McCarthy at the C.I.A. and got her in a polygraph and fired her based on who she was making contact with. This, for us, is quite chilling. The F.B.I. then, Amy, last night put out a statement essentially acknowledging that they are tracking phone calls of reporters. The person I talked to said, “Well, it may be more like backtracking.” But under this administration, what used to be hard to do, in going after reporters and their phone records, is now easy.

Amy Goodman:
So, the F.B.I. is admitting this. And what are they saying further? Are they going to continue to do this?

Brian Ross: That’s part of a criminal investigation into who provided information to reporters, who leaked classified information, which would certainly include evidence of secret prisons or N.S.A. spying, and that’s considered classified. The fact that that was leaked represents a criminal act in the view of the C.I.A., which has made referrals to the Department of Justice, and then they handed over to the F.B.I. So, essentially, they have squads of F.B.I. agents, and what they do is, according to the F.B.I. statement, they begin by getting the phone records that are easily available to them off of the government phones themselves, and then they say in this statement, which is a long sort of non-denial denial, that they take the next logical step, which is to get a reporter’s phone records.

And they do this, they say, legally. What that means is they use a provision in the PATRIOT Act – which is designed to go after terrorists, but they’re using it to go after reporters – what they call a national security letter. Essentially, it’s a letter an F.B.I. agent writes, takes it to a phone company – or anywhere, really – but takes it to a phone company, and the phone company is then required under the provisions of the PATRIOT Act to turn over the information, and also a phone company is required not divulge to the customer, me or anybody else, that the records have been sought by the government.

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