No-Fishing Zone

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No-Fishing Zone

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Do you remember Jack Anderson? He was an investigative reporter who knew where all the skeletons were buried in Washington. He had so much dirt on the powerful and the pompous that the Pentagon once considered posting undercover guards at the building's many entrances to try to spot him coming and going. Richard Nixon's thugs talked about having him killed.

Mark Feldstein, a former intern for Anderson, wrote in the Washington Monthly that Anderson was "one of the last of a dying breed of independent journalists who answered only to his own personal sense of right and wrong, not to any publisher maneuvering for marketing position."

For years, agencies like the FBI wanted badly to see just how how many secrets were stashed in Anderson's files. After he died in December, they decided their chance had come.

FBI agents showed up at the house of Anderson's elderly widow, Olivia, in Bethesda, Maryland. When they were alone with her, they apparently coerced her into signing a document that gave them permission to look through almost 200 boxes of Anderson's files. They quickly hid the document when her daughter re-entered the room.

The agents then approached Mark Feldstein, the former Anderson intern, with whom I spoke the other day. He is now director of the Journalism program at George Washington University, which has custody of the boxes.

The agents told Feldstein they had the family's permission to see them. They were looking for "any classified government documents they might find" and said they would "prosecute whoever leaked them more than two decades ago," Feldstein wrote in a Chicago Tribune column on Sunday.

But Feldstein said Anderson's widow and children knew full well he would have resisted the FBI poking around his life's work. His 78-year-old widow has since said the agents tricked her into consenting.

"This inept fishing expedition," Feldstein wrote, "would be laughable if it were not part of a larger and more serious government assault on freedom of the press."

Feldstein called it "one of many efforts hatched by the Bush administration to target journalists who have criticized the government, and it would have the effect of criminalizing the kind of press leaks that have been a regular part of politics since the presidency of George Washington."

Feldstein cited Judy Miller, then of the New York Times, who was jailed last year after she refused to uncover an anonymous White House source.

As part of the leak investigations, he said, many government employees have been given polygraph tests that have "undoubtedly discouraged politically embarrassing whistle-blowing."

In an editorial yesterday, the New York Times said the F.B.I. "should not have the right to rummage through the files of a journalist, living or dead."

"This administration always excuses its obsession with secrecy by citing national security," The Times said. "If that's the larger issue, is the Anderson estate really a priority? Is the public really best served in the age of high-tech terrorism by having F.B.I. agents rifling through a dead reporter's files from Iran-contra, the Keating Five and Watergate?"

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, which broke the Anderson story last week, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman of California was quoted as saying the FBI "has no legitimate business poking through Mr. Anderson's private papers." He called the case a "new low" for a "secrecy-crazed" administration.

In the Salt Lake Tribune, in Anderson's native Utah, columnist Holly Mullen wrote that "the president's minions have now taken to casting a net over the entire work product of a dead patriot."

"His survivors," she wrote, "say they will even go to jail if necessary to fight this government intrusion. Anderson has left a legacy. Call it a no-fishing zone."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan