Thursday, March 13, 2003

FBI Intercepts Correspondence Between Journalists

This is serious stuff:

Government agencies opened a package mailed between two Associated Press reporters last September and seized a copy of an eight-year-old unclassified FBI lab report without obtaining a warrant or notifying the news agency.

The Customs Service intercepted a package sent via Federal Express from the Associated Press bureau in Manila to the AP office in Washington, and turned the contents over to the FBI.

FBI spokesman Doug Garrison said the document contained sensitive information that should not be made public. However, an AP executive said the package contained an unclassified 1995 FBI report that had been discussed in open court in two legal cases.

"The government had no legal right to seize the package," said David Tomlin, assistant to the AP president.

The package was one of several communications between Jim Gomez in Manila and John Solomon in Washington, AP reporters who were working on terrorism investigative stories.

It was the second time that Solomon's reporting was the subject of a government seizure. In May 2001 the Justice Department subpoenaed his home phone records concerning stories he wrote about an investigation of then-Sen. Robert Torricelli.

The Customs Service said its agents opened the package from Manila after selecting it for routine inspection when it arrived at a Federal Express hub in Indianapolis. Agents did not open an identical package addressed to AP's United Nations office.

Both packages contained an FBI laboratory report on materials seized from a Filipino apartment rented by convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef. The reporters were working on a research project that resulted in stories published last month about the government's concerns before April 19, 1995, that white supremacists might bomb a federal building.

"The job of Customs is to intercept smuggled contraband and collect import duties," said Tomlin, who is an attorney. "Customs has no authority to seize private correspondence where there's no suspicion it contains contraband. There certainly wasn't any such suspicion here."