FBI Defends Request for Columnist's Papers

Anderson, seen here in 1971

hide captionAnderson, seen here in 1971, used many government sources to cover stories.

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation wants to comb through thousands of documents from the professional papers of the late investigative reporter Jack Anderson to see whether they contain classified documents. They've been promised to the George Washington University.

Some journalists and lawyers say this is the latest effort by the government to intimidate sources and choke the flow of information to the public. But a senior FBI official tells NPR the search has nothing to do with the media.

"The discussion in the public front, particularly among journalists, has become a little shrill," FBI Assistant Director of Public Affairs John Miller says in an interview. "I think a number of them want to make this a showdown at high noon between the big, bad FBI and the first amendment and a free press. It has very little to do with that."

Anderson, a muckraking columnist who died in December at the age of 83, wrote stories in the 1960s, '70s and '80s that captivated readers but embarrassed the CIA, the FBI and the White House.

James Goodale knows a little something about defending a reporter's notes. He's the former general counsel for The New York Times. And he's detecting a familiar scent.

"The U.S. government is having some couple of weeks to inspect the classified information," Goodale says.

There are now investigations into leaks to the media about domestic wiretapping and a secret program to whisk terror suspects abroad for interrogations. The Air Force and the CIA secretly got the National Archives to reclassify documents that were already public. And President Bush acknowledged he authorized the leak of classified information to rebut a critic of the invasion of Iraq, a leak that led to federal indictments.

Goodale says, "Now, the coup de grace: The FBI is reaching into the grave to retrieve classified information. I think all of those episodes seem to me like Alice in Wonderland."

After Anderson's death, FBI agents told the family that a document among his papers could shed light on a current espionage case involving pro-Israel lobbyists. They pushed for access to the papers, and say they will confiscate any classified documents they find.

The family refused to turn over the papers and their resistance has provoked supportive outrage in some media circles.

The papers are currently held by George Washington University. Anderson intended for the university to own them outright, but the gift hasn't been made official yet because of the FBI's interest. A former Anderson staffer who is a GWU professor is writing a biography of the columnist, and the university intends to make the archive public. Miller says that's the key problem.

"Let's say someone working for a foreign intelligence service from a hostile nation can go looking through those and copying those. We're really giving away a lot of material that is protected for a reason," Miller says.

Despite the resistance from Anderson's family, Miller says the FBI is still in negotiations to inspect the documents and fully expects to do so.

Former federal prosecutor Jim Martin says the FBI is on solid ground.

"If the documents from Mr. Anderson were given to the university in order to write papers and do studies that would become public and possibly to display or create a book on some of these documents, then those documents are no longer intended to be protected by a privilege," says Martin, the former U.S. attorney for St. Louis.

But Anderson's former colleagues are up in arms. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gary Cohn says he learned how to handle sources while working for Anderson in the late 1970s.

"He really would convince [sources] that what they were doing was in the public interest and was a sacred trust," Cohn says. "Especially if they worked for the government, they really did work for the American people."

Cohn says Anderson would do anything to protect his sources. The columns frequently angered then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and led the CIA to send agents to follow him in the 1970s to try to figure out who his sources were.

The family isn't terribly trusting of the government at the moment, either. When the FBI agents first arrived at the Andersons' home, the columnist's 79-year-old widow Olivia initially signed a form consenting to the search of his papers, according to their son Kevin Anderson. He is a Utah lawyer who had the power of attorney for his father during his long physical decline. Kevin Anderson says his mother was fooled into signing the form by an agent who indicated they were relatives.

John Miller, the FBI official, said that's a misrepresentation of the incident. In his interview with NPR Thursday, Miller offered this account, involving an agent whose name was also Anderson.

"In the discussions with the mother, who had a significant interest in apparently, in geneology, she asked a number of questions and brought up the idea they might be or were somehow cousins in a distant way," Miller says. He characterizes the exchange as simply "a conversation."

"The agents came to the door and identified themselves as agents of the FBI, displayed their credentials and had a very cordial and very cooperative meeting with the people who were there," Miller says. "I think some of this is being recast because the discussion has become contentious and people want to frame it that way."

The Andersons are particularly skeptical of the FBI's claim documents in the papers can shed light on the current espionage case. Anderson suffered from Parkinson's disease and stopped taking much of an active role in most of the columns written under his name after 1986, according to his son and former colleagues. But the column continued until 2004, and Miller says the FBI is most interested in the more recent material.

Former Times lawyer Goodale says the FBI's interest is sinister. In 1971, he helped beat back the Nixon administration's attempt to prevent The New York Times from publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, a classified study of the start of the Vietnam War. The government wanted the documents back, but, as the newspaper's former general counsel James Goodale recalls, the Times refused because fingerprints might identify the paper's source.

Goodale argues there's a lot of classified material that shouldn't be secret — and in those cases, the press should report on it — no matter how much the government objects.

His adversary in that case was the late Erwin Griswold, the solicitor general who argued the Pentagon Papers case on behalf of the Nixon administration. But in a 1989 op-ed in The Washington Post, Griswold wrote the government's stance didn't stand up to scrutiny.

"It quickly becomes apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material that there is massive over-classification and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another," Griswold wrote. "There may be some basis for short-term classification while plans are being made, or negotiations are going on, but apart from details of weapons systems, there is very rarely any real risk to current national security from the publication of facts relating to transactions in the past, even the fairly recent past. This is the lesson of the Pentagon Papers experience."

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