Report: ABC journo was source for FBI in 1990s
Updated: 6:30 p.m. ET
In the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, an ABC News journalist was being treated as an informant by the FBI, allegedly providing the government with the identity of a confidential source as well as tips gleaned from the network's coverage of the disaster, according to a report by The Center for Public Integrity.
The revelation, taken from a declassified FBI memo, raises questions about journalistic integrity and law enforcement ethics, as journalists are expected to keep confidential sources out of the hands of law enforcement unless there is an imminent danger to lives or the public good.
The ABC News journalist allegedly told the FBI about a connection between Iraqi Special Services and the Oklahoma City bombing, which turned out to be nonexistant. While that bit of the reporter's information may have proved inaccurate, the FBI allegedly began treating the journalist as a potential source of future information.
From The Center for Public Integrity report:
"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 1995 terrorist attack by Timothy McVeigh.
The memo suggests the ABC journalist reached out to a counterterrorism agent in New York City on his or her own the night of the bombing, in part because the information acquired suggested that "there were two other bombing incidents planned" soon at government offices in Houston and Los Angeles.
The journalist agreed to be interviewed by counterterrorism agents again the next day, the memo says, but refused to identify his or her source.
Nearly a year later, the network staffer was contacted by the FBI and agreed to divulge ABC's source for the uncorroborated claim: a former CIA officer named Vincent Cannistraro, who was on contract to the network as a consultant, who, in turn, had gotten the information from a Saudi general."
In an interview with the Center, Cannistaro said he had not authorized the reporter to release his name, which is considered a major breach of journalism ethics. That said, Cannistaro maintained that he was unconcerned about the release, as he had already contacted the FBI on his own with the information.
The name of the reporter was never released, and an ABC News spokesman told the Center they were unsure who it was exactly, but were pretty sure the journalist no longer worked at the network.
While Cannistaro said there are allegedly rules in government law enforcement against using journalists as informants, there have been sporadic cases throughout American history of the FBI and other government agencies pumping journalists for hard-to-obtain information, much to the detriment of the profession. Among the most well-known instances is that of photojournalist Ernest Withers, who along with being a famed documenter of the Civil Rights era, was later revealed to be an FBI informant.
The gossip website Gawker alleged that CBS News Washington bureau chief Chris Isham was the informant in question.
In response Isham said:
"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."
Additionally, CBS News released this statement:
"CBS News has strict standards regarding the handling of source material and we are discussing the facts of the allegations with Chris. The events in question are a matter between the FBI and ABC News."
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