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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The FBI's History of Spying on Journalists

While we were all shocked, shocked to discover that the FBI secretly subpoenaed phone records from the Associated Press as part of a leak investigation, it's only the latest in a history of such collisions between the First Amendment and the Bureau's information collection techniques.

The FBI's spying on journalists is a generational problem going back at least to the 1940s -- every generation has its tale. I hate to be the guy who brings up COINTELPRO, but, well, I just did. The scope of the meddling with journalism in that case went beyond simple spying.

The much-vaunted reforms of the post-Watergate era didn't eliminate the tension between the FBI and journalism so much as it bureaucratized it. The FBI created a sensitive informant program that was applied during the 1980s and 1990s to sources within newspapers, television stations, and even extended past that to informants working in the offices of judges and congressmen. That program is currently the subject of a FOIA lawsuit by Jesse Trentadue that journalists interested in this issue would do well to follow. As exhibits in that case, Trentadue has submitted a number of FBI documents related to the program and highly redacted manuals describing its use, which should make for interesting reading.

The FBI's subpoena of Associated Press phone records was sweeping and shocking, but not unprecedented. The bureau, and presumably other U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies, are constantly redefining what's fair game in the world of journalism to fit the public relations demands of a new generation, but this tension has existed for decades without clear resolution. Perhaps it's time to stop treating this issue as if it was born anew every 10 years, but to tackle it with a longer view as a persistent problem, with an eye toward what has worked and what hasn't over the course of generations.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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