Boston station loses scoop after agreeing not to air story

Prior Restraints | Feature | December 13, 2002

    NMU         MASSACHUSETTS         Prior Restraints         Dec 13, 2002    

Boston station loses scoop after agreeing not to air story

  • WBZ-TV heeded a government demand to delay a broadcast for national security reasons.

Joe Bergantino, a reporter for WBZ-TV's investigative team, was torn. He could risk breaking a story based on months of work investigating a software firm linked to terrorism, or heed the government's demand to hold the story for national security reasons.

In mid-June, Bergantino received a tip from a woman in New York who suspected that Ptech, a computer software company in Quincy, Mass., had ties to terrorists. Ptech specialized in developing software that manages information contained in computer networks.

Bergantino's investigation revealed that Ptech's clients included many federal governmental agencies, including the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Naval Air Command, Congress, the Department of Energy, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, NATO, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service and even the White House.

"Ptech was doing business with every federal government in defense and had access to key government data," Bergantino said.

In mid-August, Bergantino worked with a counterintelligence think tank in Washington, D.C., to gather information. He gave the organization much of the information his team had collected. After reviewing the information, the organization thought that the government should be alerted about Ptech's ties to terrorism.

By the end of August, the Treasury Department launched an investigation based on the information gathered by WBZ-TV's investigative team.

Bergantino was ready to air the story by September, but the government had different plans.

Federal authorities told Bergantino not to air the story because it would jeopardize their investigation and would threaten national security. According to federal authorities, documents would be shredded and people would flee if we ran the story, Bergantino said.

But Bergantino claims the government's demand to hold off on the story was merely a pretext.

In October 2001, President George W. Bush signed an executive order freezing the assets of individuals linked to terrorism. According to Bergantino, the list identified Saudi Arabian businessman Yassin Al-Qadi as a key financial backer of Osama Bin Laden. As it turns out, Bergantino said, Al-Qadi also is the chief financier of Ptech. The government failed to investigate Ptech in October 2001 and didn't start it's investigation until August 2002 when WBZ-TV's investigation called attention to Ptech.

Even if Ptech was unaware that the President's October 2001 order contained the name of its chief financier, documents seized in a March 2002 government raid revealed Ptech's connections with another organization linked to terrorism, Bergantino said. And again, the government failed to investigate Ptech.

The software company had an entire year to shred documents or flee so it was difficult to see how airing the story would jeopardize the government's investigation, Bergantino said.

When Bergantino pushed to air the story, the government became abusive.

"They said they would blame us if their investigation got botched," Bergantino said. "They said that they would ruin our reputation."

The government also promised Bergantino that if he held the story, he would have advance notice about the raid on Ptech. Instead, Bergantino said the government alerted an ABC News reporter, not WBZ, a CBS affiliate, to cover the raid.

"This is a good example of why requests for prior restraint must be examined very, very closely," Bergantino said. "It's not clear to me what difference our story would have made if it ran in September as planned."

When asked what journalists should do if faced with a similar demand not to air the report, Bergantino responded: "Very specific questions must be answered by a government agency that asks you to hold a story. You need very specific answers so then you can assess whether the answers are legitimate."

Bergantino doubted whether the situation posed legitimate national security risks.

"Their primary motive was not their investigation, their primary motive was that they didn't want the American public to see that they were behind the eight ball on this," Bergantino said. "This was an especially sensitive and embarrassing situation."

-- ST


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