Surveillance of Journalists: A Look Back

09.19.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“The Department of Defense does not conduct electronic or physical surveillance of journalists,” Pentagon press spokesman George E. Little wrote in a September 6 response to reporters who had questioned the scope of official monitoring of their work.

The DoD disavowal of active surveillance is almost certainly true, as far as it goes.  Even if there were surveillance to be done, it would probably not be performed by DoD.  But the reporters’ question was not a frivolous one.  There is an historical basis for their concern.

The celebrated CIA “family jewels” report on illegal Agency activities prior to the mid-1970s that was finally released in full in 2007 included descriptions of CIA operations to surveil reporters in order to identify their confidential sources.

The operation known as CELOTEX I was summarized as follows:  “At the direction of the DCI, a surveillance was conducted of Michael Getler of the Washington Post during the periods 6-9 October, 27 October – 10 December 1971 and on 3 January 1972. In addition to physical surveillance, an observation post was maintained in the Statler Hilton Hotel where observation could be maintained of the building housing his office. The surveillance was designed to determine Getler’s sources of classified information of interest to the Agency which had appeared in a number of his columns.”

CELOTEX II was described this way:  “At the direction of the DCI, surveillance was conducted of Jack Anderson and at various times his ‘leg men,’ Britt Hume, Leslie Whitten, and Joseph Spear, from 15 February to 12 April 1972. In addition to the physical surveillance, an observation post was maintained in the Statler Hilton Hotel directly opposite Anderson’s office. The purpose of this surveillance was to attempt to determine Anderson’s sources for highly classified Agency information appearing in his syndicated columns.”

The results of these surveillance activities were not reported in the CIA document.

Government attorneys this week reiterated their argument that New York Times reporter James Risen “does not have a ‘reporter’s privilege’ to refuse to identify his source” in the prosecution of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who is accused of disclosing classified information to Risen.  The attorneys cited a new ruling in another Circuit that rejected a similar claim of privilege, and they urged the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm their position.