On an evening when every politician in the Washington was trooping in front of the television cameras to add their commentary to the slurry of blather that is the immigration “debate,” and most Washington reporters were trying to figure out whether White House political czar Karl Rove will be indicted this week, little attention went to what could turn out to be the most significant story of the day.
But as journalists wake up to the fact that they have apparently become the latest targets of the Bush-Cheney administration’s abusive eavesdropping, that should change.
According to ABC News, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been quietly going after the phone records of news reporters as part of its investigations of leaks of information of government employees.
An entry posted Monday evening on The Blotter, an ABC News blog, by investigative reporters Brian Ross and Richard Esposito, reports that, “The FBI acknowledged late Monday that it is increasingly seeking reporters’ phone records in leak investigations. ‘It used to be very hard and complicated to do this, but it no longer is in the Bush administration,’ said a senior federal official.”
The report by Ross and Esposito, respected journalists with solid sources in the law enforcement community, continued:
FBI officials did not deny that phone records of ABC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post had been sought as part of a investigation of leaks at the CIA.
In a statement, the FBI press office said its leak investigations begin with the examination of government phone records.
“The FBI will take logical investigative steps to determine if a criminal act was committed by a government employee by the unauthorized release of classified information,” the statement said.
Officials say that means that phone records of reporters will be sought if government records are not sufficient.
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.
Monday evening’s report from Ross and Esposito followed their revelation earlier in the day that they had been told by “a senior federal law enforcement official” that the government is monitoring phone calls they and other journalists are making in order to identify confidential sources.
Ross and Esposito wrote in their mid-day Monday entry on the ABC News blog that:
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.