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ABC News set off a buzz this week by claiming the phone calls of two of its reporters are being tracked by the government. The reporters say it's an effort to root out their confidential sources. The FBI calls the story misleading, though it doesn't deny the journalist's phone records may have been examined.
The incident is stirring concern among reporters, who fear sources may stop talking or stop taking their calls if they believe they're being monitored. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.
MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:
Brian Ross, Chief Investigative Correspondent for ABC News, broke his story on the company's website.
(Soundbite of ABC News program)
Unidentified Announcer: Brian Ross investigates.
Unidentified Host: The government is hot on the trail of reporter sources, in particular, ours.
KELLY: In an interview later, Ross identified his source as a senior federal law enforcement official.
Mr. BRIAN ROSS (Chief Investigative Correspondent, ABC News): What he said to us was we know who you're calling. You'd better get a new set of phones right away that don't come back to your name or your number.
KELLY: Ross says he believes ABC and other news organizations have been targeted as part of a CIA leak investigation. The CIA is known, for example, to have asked the Justice Department to look into leaks about alleged CIA run prisons in Europe. Ross says he's been told the monitoring involves call logs, not the actual content of conversations, but he says even that can be damaging.
Mr. ROSS: We're working on a story now about the Federal Air Marshall Service. They're not really permitted to talk to reporters, and some of them have, as you'll see in our story. And they are concerned that phone records will establish who talked to us and when; and they wouldn't have to know about the conversation's content, just the fact the calls were made.
KELLY: The FBI acknowledges it checks telephone records as part of criminal investigations into leaks of classified information. But FBI spokesman Bill Carter says the Bureau goes through an established legal process before it can look at the records of private citizens. An FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says it's wrong to suggest the Bureau is, quote, "listening willy nilly to reporters' phone calls.' This official also flatly denies there's any connection to recent revelations of domestic monitoring being carried out by the National Security Agency.
But reports about NSA's surveillance combined with the ongoing investigation into who outed CIA officer Valerie Plame, and now the ABC News report, all add up to a climate where journalists and writers say it's increasingly hard to get their sources to talk.
Matthew Aide(ph) is writing a history of the National Security Agency. He says some long time sources no longer return his calls.
Mr. MATTHEW AIDE (Author): There are people that I formerly used to talk to who no longer can talk to me, because they've been suddenly called in to be administered polygraph examinations.
KELLY: Aide says he believes his phone is tapped and his emails are read. And he wonders, will we have to go back to the deep throat days of meeting in car garages in order to do our job.
Michael Isikoff is an investigative reporter for Newsweek. He agrees sources are being intimidated. He says the problem has gotten worse recently, but it's not brand new.
Mr. MICHAEL ISIKOFF (Investigative Reporter, Newsweek): Over the last few years, you can feel a palpable chilling effect of the multiple leak investigations that the government has been mounting, and you get sources who become extremely jittery about talking to reporters over the phone.
KELLY: Walter Pincus also takes a long view of the situation. Pincus is The Washington Post veteran intelligence reporter.
Mr. WALTER PINCUS (Intelligence Reporter, Washington Post): Every time there is a tough story, and I guess I go all the way back to Watergate, there are rumors about the FBI listening in to reporters.
KELLY: Pincus has had his own phone records subpoenaed twice as part of leak investigations into the cases of Valerie Plame and Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist once accused of stealing secrets for China. Pincus says these latest allegations of the FBI tracking journalists' phone calls will not change the way he works.
Mr. PINCUS: My experience, even back in the Watergate days, was that FBI agents I talked to about fairly sensitive Watergate stuff freely talked on the phone, and that sort of gave me the impression they didn't think there were any wiretaps. So I sort of carried on in that vein.
KELLY: Pincus adds, if the story is important enough, sources will take chances. He says, they always find you one way or the other.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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