Ross tells Schultz ABC knew of other CIA prison, gov. at 'tipping point'

Published: Monday May 15, 2006

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Brian Ross, Chief Investigative Correspondent for ABC News, appeared on today's Ed Schultz Show to discuss government wiretapping of reporters and their sources.

Click here for the audio file of the interview.

A rush transcript, prepared by RAW STORY, follows:


ES: A story that has been investigated by ABC news is that a senior federal law enforcement official is telling that network the government is tracking the phone numbers of reporters in an effort to root their confidential sources. Joining us now on the Ed Schultz show is Brian Ross, who is the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News. …

What can you tell us? How intrusive has this been?

BR: Well, uh, frankly it wasn’t intrusive until we discovered it. Now, it’s very worrisome. We always suspected we should be careful about who we call and what phones we use, and now we understand why we should be careful.

ES: No question about that. Other sources have said that the phone calls are also being traced by ABC News—to ABC news correspondents and the New York Times and Washington Post. Is it because of a story or is it—what do we know about this?

R: Well, you know there’s not a lot we know about. I mean, what we reported is that we have been warned they’re tracking the calls and they know who we’re calling, with a suggestion, change your phones. How they’re doing that, I’m not sure. This seems to have been triggered by our story along with that of the Washington Post about the secret prisons run by the CIA in Europe. At that point, there was a referral by the CIA to the Department of Justice, they call it a criminal referral which usually triggers a FBI investigation. They want to know how classified information became public, and they will go after the CIA person. They don’t go after reporters with criminal charges, generally, but they do go after the CIA people if they can find them. Revealing classified information, they could be charged with something as serious as espionage. So, once that investigation begins, I always assumed that they would probably be checking out who we called or who called us. And, uh, based on what we’ve been told, it seems like that certainly is what happened.

ES: Brian Ross, chief investigative correspondent, ABC News, with us here on the Ed Schultz Show. Is this—pretty much seems like a form of intimidation, isn’ it?

BR: Well, it certainly makes it very hard to do our job if we can’t pick up the phone. I have an expectation of privacy that that’s not something known to everybody, who I call. It interferes with my ability to do my work. I don’t want the government to know who I’m calling, whether I’m calling a whistleblower, or a top official, or somebody who is a dissident and a political rival?

ES: Why do I have these images of going back to garages, in the famous movie, All the President’s Men?

BR: Well, uh, we’re gonna go back to when we made in person meetings, or like some sort of mafio-coppo with a bag full of quarters going from payphone to payphone, if you can find one anymore.

ES: Mister Ross, do you feel like there are more people coming out with information?

BR: Yes.

ES: You do?

BR: I do. I think this has reached a kind of tipping point within the government. People who have been upset about it take some comfort that others share their feelings and we’re starting to get more feedback from others inside, including this official who warned us to be careful.

ES: Do you wrangle with the responsibility as an American, as a journalist, about what line you cross and what information you use and don’t use? I mean, are—

BR: Absolutely we do. We do every day, on the stories. In the case of the secret prisons with the CIA, we know there were two in Europe, in Poland and Romania, we knew they had been shut-down and the prisoners all moved to a third location. The CIA objected to our reporting and, uh, the decision of our management, which I think was the correct one, was that we reported where they had been and were closed, we did not report where the prisoners were currently being held, although we think we had that pretty solid.

ES: Do you think, and this is an opinion answer, you can give it if you want to—

BR: I’m better on the facts, Ed, but go ahead.

ES: I know. Do you think that, uh, the media can hurt the country when it comes to intelligence issues? I mean, the administration has made the case that it’s jeopardizing security.

BR: Well, I think our role is to report what we know. I mean, if I can find out, I don’t think it’s that big of a secret. I don’t think we’ve hurt the country by our reporting at ABC. I can imagine a hypothetical, an extreme one where we could. We would never report troop movements, we would never report anything that had to do with, uh, security arrangements. That’s why we didn’t report the current CIA prison location, because we thought that could be helpful, if they wanted to stage some kind of a jail break. But, again and again I think it’s more important for your listeners, our listeners, our readers to know what’s going on. These are questions that are worthy of debate.

ES: I’ll say they are.

BR: And our job is to provide the details so you can debate it.

ES: No question about it. I mean, when you’ve got a senior federal law enforcement official telling the network you’re being tracked—

BR: Yeah.

ES: This is a throwback to the Soviet Union, if this is the way they’re gonna operate. So, how much reporting can you do on something like this?

BR: Well, it’s not easy. I’ll tell you that, as you can imagine. People talking themselves realize they can be targeted. This puts a chill on people who want to talk. By the same token, I think there is a sense that this needs to get out, and I think that works in the favor of an open and honest, fair debate. These are issues that, uh, have not been fully heard before Congress and certainly members of Congress think they should be. And I think, you know, our viewers, your listeners, readers have a right to know what’s going on.

ES: If informants now know that their information and their contacts are being tracked to a network, do you think that they would back off? And, do you think that this is a message maybe from the government, you know, you better not go as far, we know what you’re doin’?

BR: I’ve asked that question of many people I respect who have worked at the CIA, who have worked in intelligence going after al Qaeda. We shouldn’t think of them as stupid. They already understand that phone traffic, phone calls can be and are intercepted. They have other ways, they’ve tried, and, you know, to give credit where credit’s due, the CIA and U.S intelligence has done a heck of job in trying to infiltrate these other ways, and some of that we haven’t reported. Uh, but I think it’s uh, not giving them—by revealing the fact that they’re keeping track of phone calls, I don’t think that’s news to anybody who would be considered a terrorist.

ES: As a journalist, does this make you more determined to get the story?

BR: Well, you know, we’re always determined to go after ‘em. It’s not, uh, I don’t take it personally. I mean, I think some people see it as, uh, you know—we’ve had response today [laughs] on our report on this. You know, about half the responses are, we should be hung high as traitors and the other half are sort of, “this country has become like Nazi Germany.” There’s a wide range of views on this, and in my view that’s all healthy for this country to debate it.

ES: No question about it. This story will run tonight on ABC World News Tonight?

BR: We’re workin’ on it. It’ll be on our website as well, throughout the day.