Senator wants explanation for confiscation of reporters' package

Reporter's Privilege | Feature | March 19, 2003

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Confidentiality/Privilege    

Senator wants explanation for confiscation of reporters' package

  • Sen. Charles Grassley demanded answers from two federal agencies on the illegal interception of two journalists' Federal Express parcel.

March 19, 2003 -- Calling for "close scrutiny" of the government's seizure and confiscation of unclassified documents sent from one reporter to another in September 2002, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) today demanded an explanation for the incident from the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.

In a letter addressed to FBI director Robert Mueller and Customs chief Robert Bonner, Grassley said the interception and seizure of the package appeared to be an "attempt to stop information and censor the media."

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection -- then known as the U.S. Customs Service before it was moved to the Department of Homeland Security -- intercepted a package sent via Federal Express by Associated Press reporter Jim Gomez in Manila to another AP reporter, John Solomon, in Washington, D.C. Customs agents told the AP they selected the package during a routine inspection of the courier's hub in Indianapolis on Sept. 19, 2002.

Upon inspection, agents found an unclassified and public FBI report and contacted the FBI, which then reportedly took illegal possession of the package.

The AP found out about the breach through a tip in January.

The documents related to stories the two reporters were writing about terrorism.

Grassley expressed concern that the agencies failed to obtain a warrant for seizure of the package, did not notify the AP, and provided an account of the incident that conflicted with that of Federal Express. He also questioned why Customs selected the package for inspection, especially because an identical package that did not have Solomon's name on it was not intercepted.

Grassley wrote: "A preliminary review of the available facts suggests that the government overstepped its bounds by improperly seizing private property to censor and stymie the media. Indeed, it now appears we are dealing with a violation of the First and Fourth Amendment."

The senator asked the agencies for a briefing and all relevant documents concerning the incident by April 11.

"I take such incidents seriously," he wrote. "A free and uncensored media play an important role in the checks and balances of our constitutional republic, providing valuable oversight of all three branches of government."

This is not the first time Grassley has taken an interest in free-press issues. In July 2002, he and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell demanding an explanation for the detention and questioning of National Review reporter Joel Mowbray after a State Department press briefing.

On Sept. 6, 2001, Grassley wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft seeking all documents that led to the Justice Department's decision, earlier that year, to subpoena the home phone records of the same AP reporter, John Solomon, whose package was intercepted last fall.

-- WT

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