ABC News Journalist Informant for FBI

Photo provided by 'BY-YOUR-⌘'s' via Flickr

Posted by Michael Rutledge

A recently declassified government memo revealed that the FBI had an informant inside of ABC News during the 1990’s.  The Center for Public Integrity released a story concerning the memo on April 5.  They say that this informant or ‘mole’ was a senior journalist with the network that relayed the identities of confidential sources as well as other information to the FBI over a several year period.

The journalist first approached the FBI after the Oklahoma City bombing, supplying them with information that tied the attack to Iraqi and Saudi Arabian special operations units.  This information was passed to the CIA, but nothing was made of it.  Throughout the 90’s the FBI continued to contact the journalist, getting him or her (the document doesn’t give a name or gender) to reveal the identities of ABC confidential sources that the FBI considered vital.

The FBI considered the journalist to be so reliable that they gave him or her an assigned number in the FBI informant database.  Being put in the database means that a person has supplied several pieces of information that have been highly accurate and important to open cases.

Photo provided by 'andertoons' via Flickr

The FBI released a statement saying that over the years journalists have been used as potential informers, even if they did so unknowingly.  The FBI claims there are strict rules concerning journalist informants, keeping the exchanges of information from violating the First Amendment.

ABC News released a statement saying that they are unaware of who the informant is, but believe that he or she no longer works for ABC News. Spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said that the relationship raises concerns about violations of the First Amendment.

This is a major violation of journalism ethics.  It permanently damages the credibility of journalists as well as ABC News. It puts the identities of sources at risk and gives the FBI an unhealthy amount of leverage inside of an independent news agency.  The media is supposed to be the watchdog of the government, not the government’s eyes and ears.

It is important to remember that this journalist acted with the best of intentions at heart.  He or she believed that by blurring ethical boundaries every once in a while American lives could be saved.  But should national security trump the integrity of a free press?

I was troubled by how nonchalant the FBI was in revealing they have used journalists in the past as informants.  But should we really be surprised?  In a world of suicide bombers and chemical weapons hiding under every rock, some journalists see it as their responsibility to help the government keep Americans safe.  But is this a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

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6 responses to “ABC News Journalist Informant for FBI

  1. Chelsey Teachout

    Journalists should reduce harm when reporting. If people are in immediate danger journalists should turn over the necessary information to support that Society of Professional Journalists’ code. Having a mole in a news organization is not the same thing though; that person was working two jobs and answering to one boss.

  2. Kelly Hendricks

    I honestly don’t have a problem with a journalist providing information and being “undercover” for the government as long as he or she is doing it for the best interest of the country. Whoever it was for ABC, just like you said, seems like he or she did it for positive reasons and not to hurt the network or anything of that sort.

    • I think there needs to be a difference between doing a civic duty to protect the country and being an informant. It gives the government too much leverage inside of a news agency for my taste.

  3. Katie Minnick

    Acting as a “mole” for the government is completely against the SPJ code of ethics. While I agree with Chelsea that we should reduce harm as journalists, it is NOT ok to just leak many pieces of information to the federal government. I seriously doubt that every time this informant turned over a piece of information, many lives were being saved. Being a journalists means adhering to a set of standards that includes integrity and honesty. If this person is lying about his or her own motives, how we can trust him or her to report the news accurately?

  4. Alyssa Martin

    I agree with Chelsea and Katie in regards to revealing information that can reduce harm is alright. What concerns me is if the reporter breached his own contract with his sources in terms of protecting their identity. Katie makes a good point in bringing up that acting as the reporter did as a “mole” completely disregards the code of ethics we are taught to adhere to religiously. Once one aspect is compromised, there is not much holding back in regards to the rest.

  5. That’s pretty thin. I guess it’s all about your side. Journalism is a perspective on the news, though we always take it at face value (well most of the time). It’s the only way we can get the information about things we can’t be first hand witnesses of.

    Another question you could think: Are there exceptions to every rule? Do we truly know the right actions for everything?

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