ABC News Reporter Was an FBI Informant

Posted: April 5, 2011 in Investigative, Media, National Security
Tags: , , , , ,

If you only read one story today, it should be this report from the Center for Public Integrity (via the Daily Beast):

Some journalists develop a delicate relationship with law-enforcement officials as they try to obtain sensitive information without getting too close to the government.

But a once-classified FBI memo reveals that the bureau treated a senior ABC News journalist as a potential confidential informant in the 1990s, pumping the reporter to ascertain the source of a sensational but uncorroborated tip that the network had obtained during its early coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The journalist, whose name is not disclosed in the document labeled “secret,” not only cooperated but provided the identity of a confidential source, according to the FBI memo—a likely breach of journalistic ethics if he or she did not have the source’s permission.

The ABC employee was even assigned a number in the FBI’s informant database, indicating he or she was still being vetted for suitability as a snitch after providing “highly accurate and reliable information in the past” and then revealing information the network had obtained in the hours just after the terrorist attack by Timothy McVeigh.

The journalist “advised that a source within the Saudi Arabian Intelligence Service advised that the Oklahoma City bombing was sponsored by the Iraqi Special Services who contracted seven (7) former Afghani Freedom Fighters out of Pakistan,” an April 17, 1996 FBI memo states, recounting the then-ABC journalist’s interview with FBI agents a year earlier on the evening of the April 19, 1995 bombing. (The Iraqi connection, of course, never materialized.)

This story has profound ethical questions for journalists and ABC News in particular. Journalists are supposed to get information from government sources, not the other way around. Obviously, until we know more about the identity of the reporter, it would not be useful or productive to speculate on his or her motives. But this revelation puts reporters, particularly investigative reporters who cover law enforcement, intelligence, or military beats, on the defensive. Don’t be surprised if at least one reporter, if not several, comes out publicly and says he or she has never been a government informant.

Update: Gawker is identifying the mole as current CBS News Washington Bureau Chief Christopher Isham.

Isham declined to comment when reached by Gawker. A CBS spokeswoman responded, “This is a matter for ABC News.”

Update II: Isham has released a statement denying he was the mole.

The suggestion that I was an informant for the FBI is outrageous and untrue. Like every investigative reporter, my job for 25 years has been to check out information and tips from sources. In the heat of the Oklahoma City bombing, it would not be unusual for me or any journalist to run information by a source within the FBI for confirmation or to notify authorities about a pending terrorist attack. This is consistent with the policies at every news organization. But at no time did I compromise a confidential source with the FBI or anyone else. Mr. Cannistraro was not a confidential source, but rather a colleague – a paid consultant to ABC News who had already spoken to the FBI about information he had received.

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