How Many Other Journalists Does the FBI Consider Informants?

Yesterday, the Center for Public Integrity revealed the contents of a secret FBI memo treating a top ABC journalist–who turned out to be Christopher Isham (currently CBS’ DC bureau chief)–as a confidential source for a claim that Iraq’s intelligence service had helped Timothy McVeigh bomb the Murrah Federal Building.

Isham claims he alerted the FBI about the story because there were indications there might be follow-on attacks.

Christopher Isham, a vice president at CBS News and chief of its Washington bureau, later issued a statement denouncing the claims, revealing himself as the subject of the report. Mr. Isham, who worked for ABC News at the time of the bombing, said he would have passed information to the F.B.I. only to try to verify it or to alert the bureau to word of a possible terrorist attack.

“Like every investigative reporter, my job for 25 years has been to check out information and tips from sources,” Mr. Isham said in a statement released through a CBS spokeswoman. “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 F.B.I. for confirmation or to notify authorities about a pending terrorist attack.”

Only, it turns out that Vince Cannistraro–who had told ABC the story while serving as a consultant for them and had, in turn, been told the tale by a Saudi General–had already told the FBI himself.

That source, Vincent Cannistraro, a former Central Intelligence Agency official who was a consultant for ABC News at the time, said in an interview that Mr. Isham had done something discourteous, perhaps, but not improper.

“I was working for ABC as a consultant,” he said. “I was not a confidential source.”

Mr. Cannistraro added, however, that he would have preferred it if Mr. Isham had told him that he had passed along the tip. “I was not told that Chris was also going to talk to them. And he certainly didn’t tell me.”

Now, aside from Isham ultimately revealing that his story came from Cannistraro, it seems to me the ethical questions on the part of ABC and Isham are misplaced. Isham’s call to the FBI to confirm or deny a tip really can’t be faulted.

The problem seems to lie in two issues: how ABC treated Cannistraro, and how the FBI treated Isham.

First, Cannistraro fed ABC an inflammatory tip, apparently without confirming it. Given that he was a consultant to ABC, was it his job to second source that material? As it happens, since both Cannistraro and Isham reported the tip to the FBI, it worked like a stove pipe, giving the FBI the appearance of two sources when the story derived from the same Saudi General. And how much other bullshit did Cannistraro feed ABC over the years? It’s not even necessary that Cannistraro do this deliberately–if sources knew he was an ABC consultant, particularly if they knew the information would be treated this way, it’d be easy to stovepipe further inflammatory information right to the screens of the TV. And who owns the source relationship, then, the understanding that the source can be burned for planting deliberate, inflammatory misinformation designed to stoke an illegal war?

In other words, the way ABC treated Cannistraro as a consultant muddled journalistic lines in ways that may have led to less than responsible journalism.

It wouldn’t be the first time networks’ relationships with “consultants” had compromised their reporting.

And then there’s the FBI. Anonymous sources are reassuring the NYT that Isham wasn’t really treated as a snitch, even though the report that CPI has seems to treat him as such. This seems more like FBI trying to cover its tracks–reassure other journalists the FBI isn’t typing up source reports every time a journalist calls the FBI for confirmation of a tip–than anything else. So how often does the FBI, having been asked to confirm information by a journalist, start an informant file on that tip?

And what is the relationship that evolves between the FBI and that source over the years? That is, if the FBI treats journalists who confirm information with them as sources, filing reports like this one that, if revealed, would reflect badly on the journalist, then what will the journalist do in the future when the FBI feeds him shit?

  1. Jim White says:

    As it happens, since both Cannistraro and Isham reported the tip to the FBI, it worked like a stove pipe, giving the FBI the appearance of two sources when the story derived from the same Saudi General. And how much other bullshit did Cannistraro feed ABC over the years?

    Yup, that looks like the big problem here to me, too. I think we are seeing the tip of the iceberg on how false info gets planted in the press when someone in gummint wants it out there. And ABC just keeps showing up in that regard…

    • behindthefall says:

      when someone in gummint wants it out there

      Or, “someone in someone ELSE’S gummint” …

      • Tom in AZ says:

        BOTH gummits, maybe? Just goes to show you don’t have to be a WILLING tool aka J Miller.

        • eCAHNomics says:

          You beat me to the Judith Miller point.

          Who needs snitches when there are so many willing sell-outs in the corp media these days.

  2. emptywheel says:

    Btw, I forgot one of the ironies here.

    Solomon–the byline on the original CPI report.

    Recall that Solomon was one of the very first journalists to have his call records subpoenaed–in what is certainly improper form.

    But the sources who usually break grand jury secrecy bc they don’t agree with the decision the prosecutor makes is … the FBI agent. Clearly, someone was leaking to Solomon about what they got.

  3. MadDog says:

    Since Journos being used and abused are topic du jour, this is not OT:

    NSA Espionage Trial Could Avoid Calling Reporter to Stand

    Judge rules news articles may be admitted, though prosecutor who has subpoenaed reporters in the past has yet to take action

    The prosecutor leading the Obama administration’s case against a former intelligence official who’s accused of mishandling classified information has told a judge that he has “no interest in subpoenaing the reporter” who wrote a series of newspaper articles exposing wasteful and ineffective counterterrorism programs at the National Security Agency. But the prosecutor, who has subpoenaed a journalist for information about his sources before, didn’t explicitly rule out the possibility, either.

    The prospect of hauling a reporter into court, a rare move that is invariably fraught with controversy and implications for freedom of the press, came up at a hearing on the matter Thursday as both sides argued about whether the defendant, former NSA official Thomas Drake, should be allowed to introduce the newspaper articles in his defense. The government believes Drake gave the reporter information about classified intelligence matters, but Drake contends that none of the information he provided ended up in the reporter’s stories. This, he argues, bolsters a broader claim that he never gave the reporter any classified information in their numerous exchanges, via e-mail and in person. Neither side has publicly identified the journalist, but The Washingtonian has confirmed she is Siobhan Gorman, who covered the NSA for the Baltimore Sun and now is with the Wall Street Journal…

  4. PeasantParty says:


    Marcy, you did it again.

    Okay, was this Ischam still at CBS when they fired Dan Rather for telling the truth about Georgies service record?

    More proof of Propaganda.

    (shakes head) Marcy, you zoom and scoop media to the moon!

      • PeasantParty says:

        Okay. Yeah, I knew it came from above but if the FBI has and is infiltrated in the press, you never know. To me that is way above a simple journalist.

        Heck, I’m finding it hard to see why they call themselves journalists anyway. Can’t we just consider them Data Entry employees?

  5. rkilowatt says:

    Another example of how “Expert Network” is euphemism for “Inside information Network”…for profits, disinformation, myth creation and other vomitous activities. The universe of clever-strokes trumps social behavior.

  6. MadDog says:

    Totally OT – From Public Intelligence:

    HBGary DARPA Cyber Insider Threat (CINDER) Proposal

    Like a lie detector detects physical changes in the body based on sensitivities to specific questions, we believe there are physical changes in the body that are represented in observable behavioral changes when committing actions someone knows is wrong. Our solution is to develop a paranoia-meter to measure these observables…

    …The method we propose employing for monitoring for insider threat observables is a full functional rootkit on every host or on targeted hosts that can have complete control over the operating environment…

    Collected data will be exfiltrated over a covcom channel to a controlling server. Communication outbound to the controlling server will emulate outbound HTTP browsing, and if possible will be burst transmitted at the same time as the user is browsing the web or using some other messaging or social media application. The outbound burst will be formatted to resemble an ad-click or some other appropriate subterfuge

    (PI’s Bold)

    • Gitcheegumee says:

      How coincidental that you should bring this up. I was reading about these rootkits very recently .

      Here’s the piece,and it is excellent,with lots of details for the techies here:

      “Massive Cuts in Social Spending to Finance Pentagon’s Cybersecurity Gravy Train.”

      Tom Burghardt,Global,4/4/11

      (BTW,the Burghardt piece references the Public Intelligence article from which you posted your excerpt.)

    • Gitcheegumee says:

      FWIW, that phrase in your excerpt about observable changes when somone is committing actions someone knows is wrong is intriguing,imho.

      I guess it depends upon what the meaning of “wrong “is—and just WHOM they are targeting.

      I would imagine in some instances where you have people with no conscience or moral compass,this would prove ineffective.

      I can think of lots of folks who would qualify for that,can’t you?

  7. PeasantParty says:

    we believe there are physical changes in the body that are represented in observable behavioral changes when committing actions someone knows is wrong. Our solution is to develop a paranoia-meter to measure these observables…

    I had no idea that computers could register observable physical body changes./s

    This is the excuse for using this system on American citizens and their computers? Can we focus it back at those that point it at us too?

  8. JTMinIA says:

    Isn’t this sort of behavior the new norm for American “journalism”?

    Fox Talking Head: “there are reports that Obama was trained at a Madrassa.”

    Poor Schmuck Being Interviewed: “I’ve not heard these reports; where are they?”

    Fox Talking Head: “well, you just heard it from me. Are you going to try to deny it?”

  9. Gitcheegumee says:

    This brings to my mind the embedding of reporters by the Rendon Group.
    Does anyone recall how a list of sympathetic reporters was created-with others being discarded if their sentiments were not pro war?

    The Rendon Group goes back along way,and the influence runs (and ran) deep.

    • Gitcheegumee says:

      I forgot to mention that Scooter Libby’s sister is married to one of the Rendons of the Rendon Group.

  10. Disgusteddan says:

    Why would any news organization have an (ex?) CIA official on staff? CIA is like the mafia, once your in, your in for life.

    • onitgoes says:

      In essence, I think you answered your own question. With the trad-“nooz” media, at least, one is advised to always caveat emptor.

  11. TarheelDem says:

    Another issue. To what extent do these contacts (which BTW have been the stock and trade of the FBI since Hoover took over as director) also show a symbiotic relationship in which the journalist treat the FBI as their research staff?

    • eCAHNomics says:

      Treating the FBI as research staff is a sure way to get bad info, considering the quality of the work the FBI does.

      • TarheelDem says:

        Yep, just ask the folks that Hoover used the press to hound. I dunno why but Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind.

  12. eCAHNomics says:

    I also don’t see what’s so magical about a reporter having more than one source, since it’s so easy for govt to feed reporters the same info from 2 diff people.

    • TarheelDem says:

      That’s what happens when your founding director’s best buddy was Walter Winchell. And some of the folks who founded Las Vegas.

  13. beowulf says:

    I dunno, I think the bright line standard is, do the allegations concern military or intelligence actions by a foreign power against the United States (as opposed to domestic political or, for that matter, criminal activities)?

    If any citizen discovers information that they believe in good faith indicates a foreign state is levying war on the United States (“terrorists” are non-state actors but are worth dropping a dime on too), there is nothing wrong with calling Uncle Sam, indeed I would think less of them if they didn’t.

    In this case, the information turned out be wrong but the FBI is in better position (cough, wiretaps) to determine its factual validity than any private citizen (even a news reporter) could.

    • PJEvans says:

      The FBI didn’t do anything with all the tips they had accumulated on the 9/11 hijackers, so why do you expect them to now do any better with random tips?

  14. marcusreno says:

    Based on personal knowledge, the FBI as a matter of course keeps open files on millions of persons so in the even that another agency develops a good criminal case, the FBI can claim that it had a preexisting investigation to steal the case. The same is true of ‘informants’-the FBI claim a lot of people as informants when they are not. The only way to demonstrate that someone is an informant is to obtain their informant file and determine whether there is a signed informant agreement in the file.