The agents expressed interest in documents that would aid the government's case against two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, who have been charged with disclosing classified information, said Kevin Anderson, the columnist's son.
In addition, the agents told the family they planned to remove from the columnist's archive - which has yet to be catalogued - any document they came across that was stamped "secret" or "confidential," or was otherwise classified.
"He would be rolling over in his grave to think that the FBI was going to go crawling through his papers willy-nilly," said the son of the legendary investigative journalist.
Anderson built a 50-year career largely on government leaks, and many of his secrets may have died with him. But he helped expose the Iran-Contra scandal and a CIA plan to assassinate Fidel Castro, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports. A paper trail might remain — he once posed on the cover of Parade Magazine clutching secret government papers.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Anderson also says the family is outraged at what it calls government overreaching and "a dangerous departure" from First Amendment press protections and believes that if Jack Anderson were alive "he would resist the government's efforts with all the energy he could muster."
Anderson's relatives are not the only ones hearing from FBI agents interested in the personal papers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.
Mark Feldstein, a George Washington University journalism professor and Anderson biographer, says he was visited by two agents at his Washington-area home in March.
"They flashed their badges and said they needed access to the papers," said Feldstein, a former investigative reporter. Anderson donated his papers to the university, but the family has not yet formally signed them over. In a statement, the FBI said: "These documents contain information, such as sensitive sources and methods."
But that's exactly why a friends, family and journalists say Anderson wouldn't give them up.
The government snooping comes as the Bush Admninistration is pushing leak investigations involving reporters covering the CIA and the National Security Agency, Orr reports. "It's really just a small part of a much broader assault that this administration has been conducting on the news media," Feldstein said.
FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko, a spokesman in Washington, confirmed that the bureau wants to search the Anderson archive and remove classified materials before they are made available to the public. "It has been determined that, among the papers, there are a number of U.S. government documents containing classified information," Kolko said, declining to say how the FBI knows.
The documents contain information about sources and methods used by U.S. intelligence agencies, he said.
"Under the law, no private person may possess classified documents that were illegally provided to them. There is no legal basis under which a third party could retain them as part of an estate. The documents remain the property of the U.S. government," Kolko said.
Anderson died in December at age 83 after a career in which he broke several big scandals and earned a place on President Nixon's "enemies list." Authorities on several occasions tried to find the source of leaked information that became a staple of his syndicated column.
Given his history, Anderson's family might already have been skeptical when the FBI came calling.
The timing only deepened suspicion. The AIPAC investigation dates back at least five years.
"And right after he dies, they contact his widow," Kevin Anderson said.
Still, when the FBI first called Olivia Anderson and said it was a matter of national security, the family was willing to consider the request. Jack Anderson himself cooperated with the FBI from time to time, his son said.
The more the Andersons learned, however, the less willing they were to help. Lawyers for the family are preparing a letter to the FBI declining to cooperate, Kevin Anderson said. The story was first reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
"We don't think there's anything related to the current investigation there, based on the time frame and dad's poor health," he said. "They made it clear they want to look at everything and by the way, if we find anything classified, we'll have to remove it. I suspect that's their real intention, to get through these papers before they become public."
Feldstein, who is writing a book about Anderson's relationship with Nixon, said the attempt is part of the "greatest assault on the news media since the Nixon administration."
The AIPAC case itself has raised questions about press freedoms because the former lobbyists, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, are accused of sharing information with reporters, among others. Two two are being prosecuted in federal court in Alexandria, Va.
At the same time, journalists have been questioned or subpoenaed in the investigation of who in the Bush administration leaked a CIA officer's identity and the Justice Department is probing who revealed the existence of the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program.
The agents who went to Feldstein's home asked if he had seen any classified documents, wanted the names of all graduate students who had looked through the papers and questioned him about where the documents are housed and who controls access to them.
"On the one hand, I think it's really disturbing to have the FBI come knocking at your door, demanding to look at things you've been reading. It smacks of a Gestapo state. On the other hand, it's so heavy-handed to be almost ludicrous," Feldstein said.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, finds the situation "profoundly dangerous."
"It is both ironic and somehow fitting that Jack Anderson should again be at the center of a controversy like this," Aftergood told The Washington Post. "What the FBI couldn't do during his lifetime, they're now seeking to do after his death, and I think many Americans will find that offensive."