A Chilling FBI Fishing Expedition
In an earlier life I spent 20 years as an investigative reporter, getting subpoenaed and sued in the United States, and censored and physically harassed in other parts of the globe. But when I switched careers to academia, I thought such scrapes would come to an end. I was wrong.
On March 3 two FBI agents showed up at my home, flashing their badges and demanding to see 25-year-old documents that I have been reading as part of my research for a book I'm writing about Jack Anderson, the crusading investigative columnist who died in December.
I was surprised, to put it mildly, by the FBI's sudden interest in journalism history. I asked what crimes the agents were investigating.
"Violations of the Espionage Act," was the response. The Espionage Act dates to 1917 and was used to imprison dissidents who opposed World War I.
Evidently the Justice Department has decided that it wants to prosecute people who whispered national security secrets decades ago to a reporter now dead. The FBI agents asked me if I had seen any classified government documents in the nearly 200 boxes of materials the Anderson family has donated to my university. I replied that I had seen some government documents -- reports, audits, memos -- but didn't know what their classification status was.
"Just because the documents aren't marked 'classified' doesn't mean they're not," Agent Leslie Martell suggested helpfully. But I was unable to give her the answer that she wanted: that our collection housed classified records.
Later, after I thought about it, I could recall seeing only one set of papers that might once have been classified: the FBI's own documents on Jack Anderson. But our version of those papers was heavily censored, unlike the original FBI file already in their own office.
Ironically, for the past five years the FBI and other federal agencies have refused to turn over such documents to me under the Freedom of Information Act, even though almost all the people named in them are now dead. The government claims it would violate their privacy, jeopardize national security or -- in the most absurd argument of all -- compromise "ongoing law enforcement investigations."
I told the FBI that the Anderson papers in our collection were "ancient history," literally covered in dust. That didn't matter, the agents replied. They were looking for documents going back to the early 1980s. The agents admitted that the statute of limitations had expired on any possible crimes committed that long ago, but they still wanted to root through our archives because even such old documents might demonstrate a "pattern and practice" of leaking.
The agents also wanted the names of graduate students who had worked with me on my book to see if any had seen classified government documents. They hadn't, but the FBI agents didn't seem to believe our denials and wanted to know where the Anderson archives are housed and who controlled custody of the papers.
The agents said they are investigating espionage involving two indicted lobbyists for the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and they wanted me to tell them the names of former Jack Anderson reporters who were pro-Israel in their views or who had pro-Israeli sources. I told them I felt uncomfortable passing on what would be second-hand rumors.
If I didn't want to name names, the agents said, they could mention initials and I could nod yes or no. That was a trick Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman used in "All the President's Men." I didn't name any initials, either.