“Has Roger Ailes been keeping tabs on your phone calls?”
That’s how Portfolio.com began a post back in 2008, when a former Fox News executive charged that Ailes had outfitted a highly secured “brain room” in Fox’s New York headquarters for “counterintelligence” and may have used it to hack into private phone records.
All this week people have been looking for links between the Murdoch empire’s burgeoning phone-hacking scandal in Britain and News Corp.’s sprawling political/communications juggernaut in the United States. The links so far include a former New York City cop alleging that Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World offered to pay him to hack into 9/11 victims’ phone records, and a News Corp. US shareholders’ suit in Delaware already targeting the company for nepotism adding British phone hacking as evidence of a corporate culture “run amuck.”
But rumors have floated in the press and on the Internet about possible phone hacking in that special-security-clearance-only bunker at Fox HQ for years.
Dan Cooper was one of the people who helped create the Fox News channel with Roger Ailes, and was fired in 1996. In 2008, Cooper wrote on his website that David Brock (now head of Media Matters) had used him as an anonymous, on-background-only source for an Ailes profile he was writing for New York magazine. Before the piece was published, on November 17, 1997, Cooper claims that his talent agent, Richard Leibner, told him he had received a call from Ailes, who identified Cooper as a source, and insisted that Leibner drop him as a client–or any client reels Leibner sent Fox would pile up in a corner and gather dust. Cooper continued:
“I made the connections. Ailes knew I had given Brock the interview. Certainly Brock didn’t tell him. Of course. Fox News had gotten Brock’s telephone records from the phone company, and my phone number was on the list. Deep in the bowels of 1211 Avenue of the Americas, News Corporation’s New York headquarters, was what Roger called the Brain Room. Most people thought it was simply the research department of Fox News. But unlike virtually everybody else, because I had to design and build the Brain Room, I knew it also housed a counterintelligence and black ops office. So accessing phone records was easy pie.”
Media writer Jeff Bercovici, then at Conde Nast’s short-lived Portfolio, was skeptical of such claims, writing in early 2008 that Cooper was massively “disgruntled” (which appears to be true) and that “potentially the most explosive among Cooper’s many lurid claims, assuming anyone believes them” arose from his phone-records allegation. “A Fox News spokeswoman says there’s no truth to the claim that the network has the capability to snoop through phone records,” Bercovici noted, adding, “Leibner says it’s ‘not true’ and that he didn’t fire Cooper as a client.”
Cooper’s long post, called “Naked Launch,” which also served as a book proposal, is as much about him as it is about Fox News.
Tim Dickinson relays Cooper’s description of the brain room (though he doesn’t mention anything about phone records) in his fascinating piece on Ailes that ran in Rolling Stone two months ago. “In a separate facility on the same subterranean floor,” Dickenson writes, “Ailes created an in-house research unit–-known at Fox News as the ‘brain room’–-that requires special security clearance to gain access. ‘The brain room is where Willie Horton comes from,’ says Cooper, who helped design its specs. `It’s where the evil resides.’ ”
“If that sounds paranoid,” Dickinson adds, “consider the man Ailes brought in to run the brain room: Scott Ehrlich.” Ehrlich “had taken over the lead on Big Tobacco’s campaign to crush health care reform when Ailes signed on with CNBC.”
Today, Cooper stands by his story. “I believe exactly what I wrote. The only alternative is that David Brock told Ailes well before publication that he spoke with me,” he e-mailed me. “The story is true.” Brock has declined to comment.
Of course, at this point it’s pure speculation as to how Ailes may have known that Brock interviewed Cooper, and it may have had nothing to do with illegally accessing private phone records.
Still, that possibility looks more plausible by the day. For one thing, we’ve learned quite a bit over the past week about the value of the conglomerate’s corporate denials of wrongdoing. In the British phone-hacking scandal, various company players at first denied it, then blamed it on a single “rogue reporter,” then admitted the phone-hacking was systemic, and finally admitted paying large sums of money to certain victims in exchange for their silence. That’s lying, lying about the lying and paying to cover-up the lying—pretty much the liar’s trifecta.
If you’re wondering whether Roger Ailes is capable of urging people to mislead authorities, just start combing the cotton of his involvement in the Judith Regan/Bernie Kerik affair. The latest is that Ailes allegedly told Regan to lie about her relationship Kerik to the feds when they were vetting him for a cabinet position as Secretary of Homeland Security. (The onetime Giuliani protégé now sits in federal prison.)
In any case, on Monday, CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics), called on the House and Senate to investigate whether News Corp. employees “have hacked into the voicemails of Americans.”
“It is becoming increasingly clear this scandal was not perpetrated by a few rogue reporters, but was systematically orchestrated at the highest levels of News Corp.,” says CREW executive director Melanie Sloan.
“Given the ever-increasing number of Murdoch publications involved, combined with the allegation that News Corp. journalists sought access to the voicemails of 9/11 victims and their families, America cannot leave this investigation entirely to the British.”
Senators Jay Rockefeller and Frank Lautenberg have called for federal agencies to investigate whether the empire has violated privacy laws in the United States.
UPDATE: I’ve changed Cooper’s title at Fox News to more accurately describe his role there.