Thursday, March 13, 2003; 9:44 AM
Government agencies opened a package mailed between two Associated Press reporters last September and seized a copy of an eight-year-old unclassified FBI lab report without obtaining a warrant or notifying the news agency.
The Customs Service intercepted a package sent via Federal Express from the Associated Press bureau in Manila to the AP office in Washington, and turned the contents over to the FBI.
FBI spokesman Doug Garrison said the document contained sensitive information that should not be made public. However, an AP executive said the package contained an unclassified 1995 FBI report that had been discussed in open court in two legal cases.
"The government had no legal right to seize the package," said David Tomlin, assistant to the AP president.
The package was one of several communications between Jim Gomez in Manila and John Solomon in Washington, AP reporters who were working on terrorism investigative stories.
It was the second time that Solomon's reporting was the subject of a government seizure. In May 2001 the Justice Department subpoenaed his home phone records concerning stories he wrote about an investigation of then-Sen. Robert Torricelli.
The Customs Service said its agents opened the package from Manila after selecting it for routine inspection when it arrived at a Federal Express hub in Indianapolis. Agents did not open an identical package addressed to AP's United Nations office.
Both packages contained an FBI laboratory report on materials seized from a Filipino apartment rented by convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef. The reporters were working on a research project that resulted in stories published last month about the government's concerns before April 19, 1995, that white supremacists might bomb a federal building.
"The job of Customs is to intercept smuggled contraband and collect import duties," said Tomlin, who is an attorney. "Customs has no authority to seize private correspondence where there's no suspicion it contains contraband. There certainly wasn't any such suspicion here."
Press freedom advocates criticized the agencies' seizure of the document.
"It was really stupid of them to keep it," said Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "What they're trying to do is prevent you from reporting a story. That's censorship."
The AP inquired about the missing FedEx package last autumn when it did not arrive in Washington, and the courier suggested it might have fallen off a delivery van. FedEx later reimbursed AP $100 for the loss.
FedEx spokeswoman Sally Davenport said Wednesday the company was unable to track the package after it arrived in Indianapolis and had no records showing that it was seized by Customs. If the company knows a package has been taken by Customs, FedEx policy is to notify the customer and provide a number to contact the agency, Davenport said. FedEx did send a letter of apology to the AP, she said.
In January the AP was tipped that the package had been intercepted and that the FBI had requested an investigation to find out who had provided the lab report to the news service.
A letter from the Philippine Department of Justice to the Philippine National Police about the document read, in part: "In view of the concerns raised by the FBI regarding this matter, may we request your good office to conduct a thorough investigation on the mishandling of such sensitive information?"
Customs has the legal right to examine packages sent from overseas at the point they arrive in the United States, in this case Indianapolis. The Customs Service (now the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection) said in a statement that the package addressed to Solomon was selected for "routine inspection" on Sept. 19. Because it contained an FBI document, Customs called the FBI. Spokesman Dean Boyd said Customs routinely asks another agency about contents of an examined package that pertain to that agency.
"An FBI agent subsequently examined the file and requested that it be turned over to the FBI," the Customs statement said. "Based upon these representations by the FBI, Customs turned the file over."
No warrant was issued, Customs and FBI both said. Customs said any notification to the AP was the FBI's responsibility.
Garrison, who works out of the FBI's Indianapolis bureau, said the package was sent to the FBI in Washington after an FBI agent in Indianapolis reviewed the document and said it contained some information that should not be made public.
"From the FBI's perspective, if the document was a laboratory report that contained sensitive information that the laboratory thought ought to be controlled, they had an obligation to control it," Garrison said. "Generally speaking, we're more careful about the kind of information that's out there. We don't want criminals to get ideas as to how to cause more damage."
The AP said the information had been previously publicly disclosed in two court venues. The material included copies and photos of dozens of pieces of evidence gathered in the terrorism cases of Abdul Hakim Murad and Ramzi Yousef, including batteries, explosive devices, bomb fragments, a copy of a Time magazine, cell phones and phone books.
Murad and Yousef were sentenced to life in prison in a plot to blow up 12 U.S.-bound airliners flying out of Asia. Yousef was later convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The earlier incident involving Solomon's home phone records sparked a media outcry after Justice officials subpoenaed Solomon's phone records while trying to learn the identity of law enforcement officials who told the AP about a wiretap intercept of then-Sen. Torricelli of New Jersey.
Solomon found out about the May 2001 subpoena in August when he returned from vacation and opened a notification letter from the government. The Code of Federal Regulations says the AP should have had the opportunity to challenge the subpoena.
© 2003 The Associated Press