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United States3 June 2002

FBI reforms threaten the confidentiality of journalists’ work

Reporters Without Borders is alarmed by the American government’s reform of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). The reform gives federal agents carrying out investigations linked to the fight against terrorism the power to monitor telephone conversations and intercept e-mails or any other kind of Internet based information exchange.

"The emotion stirred up by the terrorist attacks of 11 September and the legitimate desire to combat terrorism must not lead to an attack on collective and individual freedoms, and particularly on the freedom of expression enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution" said Robert Ménard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, in a letter addressed to the American Attorney General John Ashcroft. "This reform calls into question the fundamental principles of the confidential nature of a journalist’s sources and information," added Robert Ménard.

Reporters Wihtout Borders has called on John Ashcroft to confirm the principle of confidentiality of sources and information by requiring that any surveillance activity must first be authorised by a judge.

The Attorney General and FBI director Robert Mueller presented their plans to reform the federal police on 30 May 2002. Under the plan, the FBI is to focus its activities on the fight against terrorism and not on fighting crime. One of the main changes is that federal agents would be authorised to monitor telephone and electronic communications made by any person who may be in possession of information relating to terrorism affairs, without requesting prior authorisation from a judge. The FBI could also access computerised data bases containing commercial, economic or scientific information. Agents would also be able to infiltrate political and public meetings and places of worship. These investigations could be "preventive" measures, even if no evidence exists against the persons or organisations under surveillance.

The main civil liberties and freedom of expression defence organisations have condemned the reforms "which recall the dark days of McCarthyism". Indeed recent blunders show the limitations of ill-supervised surveillance. The American non-governmental organisation EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) has obtained official FBI documents which prove that a fault in its e-mail interception software "Carnivore", led to unintentional spying on the e-mails of citizens who had no links with terrorism issues.

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