Sharyl Attkisson
Attkisson, on the case. (John P. Filo/CBS News)

First in a series of posts on CBS News Investigative Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, one of the most interesting figures in U.S. media today. 

At the tail end of a recent radio interview, CBS News investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson appeared to realize that she’d gone a bit too far. She had been chatting with radio host Chris Stigall of Philadelphia-based WPHT 1210 AM on a salacious array of topics. Just before the interview concluded, Attkisson, sounding a bit harried, told Stigall:

Let me just—since, you know, you caught me by surprise asking me about the computer thing, and I just want to say because I am not prepared to say more today that while there has been an intrusion in my computer systems, I’m just not—I’m trying not to say too much or make very specific accusations about what’s at the bottom of it right now because I’m meticulously gathering the information, so I’m trying to be very careful and patient and methodical about this.

Too late for “careful” and “patient” and “methodical.” After all, the reporter had spent a good portion of the 20-minute interview being careless, impatient and immethodical.

How so? At the start of the interview, Attkisson and Stigall were discussing the Justice Department’s snooping into the actions of journalists. Stigall asked her, point-blank: “Do you know if your phone was tapped or your e-mails watched or seized while you were having conversations with unnamed sources on Benghazi, Sharyl?”

Attkisson responded:

Well, um, I’m not ready to fully speak publicly about some things that have affected me because I’m trying to be methodical and careful about what I say, but there has been an issue in my house and there’s been an issue with my computers that’s gone on for quite a long time that we’re looking into.

Upshot: Something’s wrong with my computers.

In the next round, Attkisson started amplifying the story. Stigall posed this question: “And do you think it’s related to what James Rosen is going through at Fox News right now, apparently?” Attkisson:

Well, I don’t know details of his … I only know what I’ve read but I think there could be some relationship between these types of things and what’s happened to me.

Upshot: THE GOVERNMENT MAY BE SPYING ON ME!

More amplification came in the next round, as Attkisson responded to a question about why her communications might be of interest to the government. She said:

Well, I have been, as I said, pursuing an issue for a long time now — much longer than you’ve been hearing about this in the news — with some compromising of my computer systems in my house — my personal computer systems as well as my work computer systems. So, we’re digging into that and just not ready to say much more right now, but I am concerned.

Upshot: They’re following me everywhere.

More and more details flowed from the conversation:

Stigall: Can you tell me for how long you’ve been dealing with this?
Attkisson: At least February of 2011, and I think probably a significant period of time before that.
Stigall: Was there something specific about February 2011 — was there something of denotation there, timewise, in your coverage of news?
Attkisson: Someone was able to identify that that was when a particular thing happened. An analyst was able to identify some activity. And during that time, I was covering … Fast and Furious still, and I was also covering some green-energy stories that the administration was very sensitive about, with the spending of 90 billion stimulus dollars on green-energy initiatives that were not turning out to be, perhaps, money well spent.
Stigall: And you believe that you have evidence or you’ve sensed that there’s something amiss about your e-mail, your personal files, your computers.
Attkisson: Well, there’s definitely been an intrusion into my computer system, so I really can’t say more than that right now.

But you already did say more than that! You said that the “intrusion” could be related to government overreach!

The contradictions, too, spilled from these remarks to Politico’s Dylan Byers:

I can confirm that an intrusion of my computers has been under some investigation on my end for some months, but I’m not prepared to make an allegation against a specific entity today as I’ve been patient and methodical about this matter. I need to check with my attorney and CBS to get their recommendations on info we make public.

Though Attkisson has been extremely methodical about this matter, the Justice Department apparently felt implicated enough by her statements to come forth with one of its own:

To our knowledge, the Justice Department has never compromised Ms. Attkisson’s computers, or otherwise sought any information from or concerning any telephone, computer, or other media device she may own or use.

What could account for these “intrusions”? For some analysis on that point, the Erik Wemple Blog turned to Eugene H. Spafford, a Purdue University professor and specialist in computer security. Millions of computers, says Spafford, get infiltrated by various kinds of viruses or “botnet activity,” says Spafford. A second tier of cybersnooping, continues Spafford, comes from people who install software on computers to monitor their users. The culprits here can be any number of folks, including friends or enemies or acquaintances or stalkers, as the case may be.

Of course, governments both domestic and foreign could have an interest in Attkisson’s computer activity, says Spafford. So could criminal gangs or political groups or even lobbyists, he says.  A grab bag of scenarios, in other words, could account for the computer weirdness that Attkisson has observed on her systems.

And that’s the point here. Attkisson engaged in a speculative frenzy about her computer security on a radio show in which the central topic was government surveillance. Though many things are unclear about this case, one is not: This CBS News correspondent published her own story before having a full set of facts. Marvels Spafford: “It’s very odd for her to make that kind of public statement and then to state that she needs to talk with the legal department, with her lawyer and others. If she’s got that kind of concern, then why would she say anything in the first place?”

Attkisson declined to respond to questions about the affair, referring the Erik Wemple Blog to the short-statement-issuing CBS News media office. Among our curiosities: How long will this CBS News investigation take? When it concludes, will there be a statement on its conclusions? What’s the timeline of Attkisson computer issues?

Thanks to Attkisson’s lack of care, patience and methodicalness, the status of her home and work computers now weigh on the credibility of CBS News. If this internal CBS News cyber-investigation concludes that the intrusions resulted from garden-variety hacking schemes, how will Attkisson and her employers spin that one?

If, on the other hand, it finds evidence of the suspicions that Attkisson aired on her radio appearance, the word “scandal” won’t be strong enough to describe the crisis to follow. And Sharyl Attkisson will emerge as the journalist that this administration fears the most.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.