WASHINGTON — Jack Anderson turned up plenty of government secrets during his half-century career as an investigative reporter, and his family had hoped to make his papers available to the public after his death in December -- but the government wants to see, and possibly confiscate, them first.
The FBI believes that the columnist's files may contain national security secrets, including documents that would aid in the prosecution of two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They have been charged with disclosing classified information, and the bureau asked the family to turn over the documents.
On Tuesday, the family's lawyer, Michael Sullivan, sent a letter to the FBI refusing the bureau's request.
"The family has concluded that were Mr. Anderson alive today, he would not cooperate with the government on this matter.... To honor both his memory and his wishes, the family feels duty bound to do no less," the letter said.
The columnist's son, Kevin N. Anderson, put it more succinctly: "He would absolutely oppose the FBI rifling through his papers at will."
Though some of the documents may be classified, he said, they do not contain national security secrets, only "embarrassing top secrets -- hammers that cost a thousand dollars and things like that."
Anderson said it was unlikely that his father had papers relevant to the AIPAC case, given that he had done little original reporting after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1990.
The FBI contends that, because it believes the documents contain classified material, they belong to the government and cannot be retained as part of a private estate.
"The U.S. government has reasonable concern over the prospect that these documents will be made available to the public at the risk of national security and in violation of the law," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said Tuesday.
Anderson said he was told by the FBI that the agency would remove anything that was classified from the papers, which have not been cataloged. Confiscated documents then would be reviewed by the originating federal agency before being declassified and returned to the family, which has promised the papers to George Washington University.
The FBI's attempt to seize papers of the Washington muckraker, first reported Tuesday by the Chronicle of Higher Education, comes as civil libertarians have decried expanded limits on freedom of information since the Sept. 11 attacks. It also follows Monday's announcement by the National Archives that it would end agreements with federal agencies that want to withdraw records from public shelves.
"It's disturbing to us in higher education because it has a chilling effect on the research process," said Duane E. Webster, executive director of the Assn. of Research Libraries. "If you've got someone looking over your shoulder, it creates an anxiety."
The case also spotlights press freedoms in the post-Sept. 11 era. Journalists have been questioned and subpoenaed in the investigations of who in the Bush administration leaked a CIA officer's identity and how the press learned of the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program and the CIA's alleged secret prisons overseas. The former AIPAC lobbyists, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, also are accused of sharing their information with reporters.
Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at George Washington University and Anderson's biographer, said he felt "intimidated" after two FBI agents showed up at his house. They asked if he had seen any classified documents or knew about how they could be accessed, and they wanted the names of all of his graduate students who had seen the papers.
"It smacks of a Gestapo state," said Feldstein, who spent 20 years as an investigative reporter and producer for ABC, NBC and CNN. He labeled the move part of "the most broad assault on the news media since the Nixon administration."
Agents also asked Lizanne Payne, executive director of the Washington Research Library Consortium, if the papers were located in the storage space that the consortium maintains for George Washington University. She said she told them that she did not know; had she known, she said, the FBI might have been able to obtain the papers through her with a court order.
"If the FBI can persuade a court that there is probable cause that there are stolen records in that collection, then they should go to court," said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. "They cannot bully or attempt to intimidate the family or the university into surrendering private records."
Though press freedom advocates have called for a federal shield law to protect journalists from having to reveal their sources, Aftergood said that this episode suggests reporters "may need a posthumous privilege to prevent the government from poking through their records after they're dead."
At its height, Anderson's Washington Merry-Go-Round column appeared in nearly 1,000 newspapers with more than 40 million daily readers. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his coverage of U.S. relations with India and Pakistan, and his scoops included the involvement of five senators in the savings and loan collapse of the late 1980s, a CIA plot to use the Mafia to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro, Iran's role in the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut, and investigations into the Iran-Contra scandal. He was also at the top of President Nixon's famous "enemies" list.
The younger Anderson said he feared that the FBI's seizure of his father's files would destroy their political value.
"He believed the secrecy stamp was something that was improperly used," Anderson said. "And I suspect he would think this was a continuing abuse of the secrecy stamp to try to remove embarrassing documents from the public eye."