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Freedom of the Press Under Attack: Government Begins Tracking Phone Calls of Journalists

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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. [includes rush transcript]

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.

  • Brian Ross, Chief Investigative Correspondent for ABC News.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We now are joined by ABC News investigative reporter who broke the story, someone 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.

AMY GOODMAN: And these national security letters, or NSLs, are not signed by a judge?

BRIAN ROSS: They are not signed by a judge.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think they’re going after you, Brian Ross?

BRIAN ROSS: There are two stories that I know by talking to people who have been interviewed that the C.I.A. considers to be evidence of criminal behavior on the part of someone. Our story on the C.I.A. secret prisons, the Washington Post broke that story. They did not report the two countries. We came along and with our own sources reported the two countries where the prisons had been were Poland and Romania, and this set off quite a firestorm inside the C.I.A.

As well, we reported on an attack in Pakistan using a C.I.A. Predator with missiles attached to it, the one that killed 18 people there, looking for the number two man in al-Qaeda, al-Zawahri. We got word of that very early and reported it, and that infuriated the C.I.A., because it embarrassed them with the Pakistanis. They hadn’t quite made up the cover story they used when the C.I.A. operates inside Pakistan. Generally, the Pakistanis will say it was a bomb they set off or something to cover the fact that the U.S. operates inside Pakistan sometimes. So those two incidents resulted in the C.I.A. being upset and asking for an investigation as to who leaked that information.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Brian Ross, didn’t Human Rights Watch first reveal Poland and Romania as the countries in Eastern Europe?

BRIAN ROSS: They did. They did. And they did first reveal it. What made a difference was that we were able to — or they said they “suspected” it. We were able to actually confirm it with current and former C.I.A. officials, and what upset the C.I.A., apparently, is it’s one thing for Human Rights Watch to say something, because they feel they can easily deny that; it’s harder for them to deny it when one of the major news organizations says it. So it carries a certain weight, apparently, in their view, that is hard for them to deny with their overseas partners, I guess.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Brian Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News. According to Justice Department figures, the F.B.I. issued a total of 9,254 so-called national security letters last year, targeting 3,500 citizens and legal residents.

BRIAN ROSS: Astounding figure. I guess we’re one of them, or we are this year. This has become a very common, easily done. The officials I’ve talked to say that there was a time when this was difficult to do, even for anything — particularly involving journalists, that there were all sorts of safeguards and essentially hoops to jump through. Those have been removed. And this really is the case. It began with the whole Scooter Libby case, when they went after reporters there to get information as to who talked to Scooter Libby, and now is commonly used. Whenever the C.I.A. refers a case for a criminal investigation, that is almost a quick second step they take.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Ross, on the issue of the prisons, do you know if these prisons are still operating in Romania and Poland? I remember in one of her overseas trips recently, Condoleezza Rice went to Romania.

BRIAN ROSS: We reported in December that they had rushed to close them before she landed in Europe, so that she could say there are no such prisons in Europe, that they had operated up to a week before, when this word got out. And that was one of the reasons they were so eager for us not to report it was that it embarrassed her further. We reported that they closed down those two prisons and moved the 12 to 14 top al-Qaeda figures being held there to a third country in North Africa. And we did not report the name of that country.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, USA Today in their story on AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon giving over the phone numbers of tens of millions of Americans, the calls that they’re making, they now have reported that BellSouth is saying that they didn’t do this. And you’ve written a piece on The Blotter at ABC’s website, talking about why Qwest said no to N.S.A. Can you talk further about these companies and what they’re doing?

BRIAN ROSS: Well, BellSouth is essentially saying they did not do it on a large-scale basis, which — what we were told following USA Today's ground breaking story was that, in fact, they did. It's hard to know, because the companies initially said they couldn’t talk about national security matters. I don’t know how it is they feel that they have some sort of classified information about national security. But it well might be that there’s some sort of sweeping national security letter that is involved here. The government said the companies did this voluntarily, so they felt that it was legal to do it.

There are two major events tomorrow, Amy, on this issue. One, Russ Tice, the former N.S.A. intelligence analyst, is going to Capitol Hill to meet with the Senate staff to reveal what he says are illegal and unlawful acts by the N.S.A., and in particular General Michael Hayden. As well, there’s a hearing tomorrow in San Francisco over the lawsuit brought against AT&T. A former AT&T technical figure there has provided information that they set up secret rooms at AT&T buildings in San Francisco and San Diego, San Jose, I think L.A. and Seattle, where they essentially split off the fiber-optic cable, had a way to divert it. This would be so — and the N.S.A. set up secret rooms and hired people from the phone companies there to essentially run the information, which is essentially everybody’s email and messages and everything, through this machine, which is able to detect the text and, as I understand it, they are able to set up sort of key words and sort of loop through the emails of everyone to see if anyone else is talking about al-Qaeda or bombings or whatever it is they consider to be the key words.

AMY GOODMAN: I encourage people to go to our website at for our hour with Russell Tice__, who will be speaking before Congress. But I wanted to ask you, Brian Ross, about what this means for government whistleblowers and what you found in talking to them now.

BRIAN ROSS: Well, this is very chilling now. We’re working on a major story, Amy, that’s coming out Friday, having to do with failures at the Federal Air Marshals Service, and a number of Federal Air Marshals, in violation of their rules, have been providing us information. And they are, to say the least, extremely concerned with the news that the government can so easily obtain my phone records and wondering what this will mean, because the Air Marshals Service has retaliated against them. So, they’re concerned, and I know that means that there will be shorter people willing to talk, at least on the phone. It may be a case where a lot more shoe leather will be required to do reporting. And if so, that’s what we’ll have to do.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of guarantees do they ask for now from you? What kind of guarantees can you give them?

BRIAN ROSS: The only guarantee I can give is that I will not reveal their name or their position. I certainly would not. I think everyone has to know, and there’s nothing I can do about it — if my phone records have been taken by the government, obtained somehow, I don’t know about it. But I do know that I’ve been told that they are looking at our records, so I assume they have.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Ross, is this changing the way you work?

BRIAN ROSS: Absolutely. I mean, this makes it very, very difficult. And, you know, you sort of have to start thinking, I guess, like some sort of Mafia capo. You make your phone calls with bags of quarters at pay phones, if you can find them anymore. It’s chilling, to say the least, and I guess I’ve concluded that this requires, you know, on my part, your part, all of us who are reporters and care about the truth, really reporting on this subject, and I don’t think it’s self-centered. I think it’s important that everyone know this is what’s happening and, you know, let Americans decide if that’s how they want the government to operate.

AMY GOODMAN: Aren’t there whistleblower shield laws?

BRIAN ROSS: Whistleblower shield — there are shield laws that protect whistleblowers who go to Congress from retaliation. And there still is the First Amendment, I believe, in this country, but it’s under attack clearly. There are shield laws for them. But in the case of, say, the Federal Air Marshals or people at the C.I.A., just contact with a reporter probably is enough to put them in a fair amount of trouble. Just contacts.

AMY GOODMAN: Is ABC considering suing either the U.S. government or the corporations that are handing over your information?

BRIAN ROSS: I think we certainly would if we could figure out who did it and how. Since we haven’t been notified, you know, we won’t know this for at least a year if they have our records. It puts us in a difficult situation. We have this insider tip, essentially, that someone has our records. We’re trying to figure out as quickly as we can who it is and how we got them and what records they have and how we can prevent it. But quite frankly, the PATRIOT Act, I don’t think, was designed to go after journalists, but it certainly is being used that way.

AMY GOODMAN: What what phone company do you use?

BRIAN ROSS: Well, there are a variety of them. AT&T is one of them. Verizon is another. And, you know, they both seem to be prepared to cooperate, and especially if they’re served with what appear to be legal documents. I guess I don’t see how they don’t cooperate.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you asked them directly if they have handed over your documents?

BRIAN ROSS: Their response is “We cannot comment on any national security matter.” They will not say.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Brian Ross, for joining us. Brian Ross is chief investigative correspondent for ABC News. And we will certainly continue to follow this story.

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