SA journalist gets a visit from the feds
When federal agents knock on your door, chances are they're not bringing you a Publisher's Clearinghouse check. Just ask San Antonio freelance journalist Bill Conroy: Federal agents visited his home and workplace trying to squeeze him for the source of a leaked Department of Homeland Security memo.
Conroy freelances investigative pieces about the drug war, border issues, and national security for Narco News, an online magazine covering Mexico and Central and South America. He is also the editor of the San Antonio Business Journal, but his work for Narco News is unrelated.
Although ominous for journalists' First Amendment rights, the agents' visit raises more critical issues of protocol, national security, and turf wars apparently brewing between federal agencies.
According to Conroy's lawyer, Ron Tonkin, a former assistant U.S. attorney specializing in drug cases, around 6 p.m. on May 23, a man and woman identifying themselves as internal affairs agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement visited Conroy's home. Conroy was still at work and his wife answered the door. At the behest of Conroy's wife, Agent Carlos Salazar gave her a phone number for Conroy to call him, then he and the unidentified agent left.
After receiving a call at work from his wife, Conroy phoned the number Salazar provided and left a voicemail, Tonkin said.
The Current called Salazar's number several times over the course of four days, but no one answered, nor was there voicemail.
Salazar didn't call Conroy back, but the next day, he and a male agent showed up at the Business Journal. Conroy escorted them to a conference room, where Salazar reportedly said, "I want to know your source" of a leaked, yet unclassified DHS memo that had been the centerpiece of one of Conroy's Narco News stories. Tonkin said Conroy refused to give up his source and told Salazar that if they planned on continuing to question him, he would record the conversation.
The agents left the conference room, reportedly asking Conroy, "Does your boss know you write for Narcosphere?"
The agents then took Conroy's boss into a conference room, where, according to Tonkin, he told them Conroy had done the work on his own time for another publication and there was nothing he could do for them.
Tonkin said that to compel Conroy to reveal a source, the federal government would have to summon him before a grand jury, as were The New York Times' Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper. Still Conroy or any journalist can opt not to reveal their sources - as did Miller and Cooper - and face jail time and a fine for their refusal.
As if the agents' actions didn't reflect badly enough on DHS, the memo in question further damages the federal government's credibility.
In an April 7 Narco News story, Conroy reports that a March 28 memo issued by Marcy Forman, director of the office of investigations for ICE "orders supervisors in the field to sanitize terrorism-related case files maintained in a major law-enforcement computer system."
Essentially, Conroy wrote, ICE supervisors were ordered to purge terrorism records from the computer system and reclassify them as unrelated to terrorism. About 4,000 records were affected.
Mark Conrad, a retired supervisory special agent with U.S. Customs, told the Current that this order contradicts any protocol he knew of while an agent and violates federal law. "Federal computer records are sacrosanct," he said. "If there's a change in the case, you file a supplementary report, but you can't change files in the computer."
A turf war between Homeland Security and the FBI could have prompted the directive. Former customs agent Sanalio González, president of the Federal Hispanic Law Enforcement Officers Association and a Drug Enforcement Agency whistleblower, said when the Bush Administration created DHS to combat terrorism, the FBI, which is under the Justice Department, retained the authority to investigate terrorist cases. This ruffled feathers at the 22 agencies under DHS. "These guys weren't too happy they became DHS and the FBI got to investigate terrorism."
As for the agents' actions, ICE spokesperson Jamie Zuieback said "they were acting within the scope of their duty and federal law." When pressed, Zuieback could not cite the law under which the agents were acting, nor would she say who authorized the visit.
"The agents would not do this on their own," Conrad said, adding that in his experience as a supervisor, "we could not interview a reporter especially about sources or anything they had written without Washington approval, including the Department of Justice."
Tonkin and Conrad speculated that the visits were "payback" for Conroy's stories that were embarrassing to U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas Johnny Sutton. On April 1, Conroy reported on an alleged cover-up regarding ICE agents who were reportedly protecting a criminal informant accused of multiple drug-related murders in Ciudad Juárez. The case fell under Sutton's jurisdiction.
Shana Jones, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office, which is headquartered in San Antonio, would not comment on that allegation, saying, "although many agents consult with the U.S. Attorney's office, not all do. If a subpoena is to be issued, it needs approval from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney General."
"If this were a sophisticated operation, they wouldn't have done it that way," Conrad added. "If they had a genuine national security concern, they would have used the Patriot Act and Conroy would have never known. This is worse than the Keystone Cops." •
By Lisa Sorg