Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
A journalist who gained notoriety for his role in investigating the TWA Flight 800 explosion has criticized major news organizations for selectively defending the First Amendment rights of an Associated Press reporter who had his phone records seized by the Justice Department, while ignoring his own similar run-in with the government.
James Sanders, who gained notoriety for his book, “The Downing of TWA Flight 800,” and his book, “Altered Evidence,” pointed to a Washington Post story published on Tuesday that said the Justice Department subpoenaed the home telephone records of AP reporter John Solomon, who was covering the 1996 campaign finance investigation of Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J.
“AP President and CEO Louis D. Boccardi said the office of U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White in New York, acting with the authorization of Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, obtained a record of reporter John Solomon’s incoming and outgoing home telephone calls for a five-day period in May,” the Post reported. “White’s office disclosed its highly unusual subpoena in an Aug. 20 letter to Solomon.”
Sanders told WND he is perplexed because “AP could not bring itself to report that my own phone records were illegally seized in 1997″ while he was investigating conflicting evidence and reports dealing with the TWA Flight 800 tragedy. He says he was persecuted “while the establishment media remained silent.”
The government has long maintained that the 1996 explosion of the Boeing 747 – which had just taken off from New York City’s Kennedy Airport enroute to Paris, France – was caused by faulty wiring that ignited fuel vapors in the plane’s empty center fuel tank. Officially, however, government investigators have never been able to prove that theory. Sanders – based on multiple eyewitness accounts, including experienced military personnel, along with other physical evidence – maintained the plane was shot down, by at least one surface-to-air missile.
According to the Post article, Solomon, the AP writer, “wrote an article quoting unnamed federal officials as saying Torricelli had been overheard on a federal wiretap in 1996 talking to a relative of a suspected organized-crime figure in Chicago.”
“Solomon’s story said prosecutors were reviewing the intercept anew in connection with the ongoing probe of Torricelli’s 1996 Senate campaign. White’s office subpoenaed records of calls at Solomon’s home between May 2 and May 7,” the Post reported.
The Post also quoted First Amendment and media experts, who expressed outrage at the Justice Department’s treatment of Solomon.
“This is really disturbing,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. “It shows [the Justice Department's] willingness to try to stop leaks by turning journalists into investigators for the government.”
Others blamed the Bush administration, even though the U.S. attorney directing the probe – White – was appointed by President Clinton.
“We are outraged by what the Justice Department has done, and we will seek any available legal redress,” Boccardi said in the Post report. “Their actions fly in the face of long-standing policy that recognizes what a serious step it is to go after a reporter’s phone records. We hope that this secret assault on the press is not an indication of the Bush administration’s attitude toward a press free of government interference.”
Sanders says he wonders where those who are defending the AP writer were when his own phone records were being seized.
“When the establishment media only selectively reports government abuse of the ‘freedom of the press’ portion of the First Amendment, something called ‘precedent’ is established,” Sanders said.
The Post did at least mention Sanders’ case.
Of the Justice Department’s seizure of Solomon’s records, the paper said “such actions are exceedingly rare.” The Post continued: “Among the few other instances, federal officials in 1997 subpoenaed the phone records of a freelance journalist who had been critical of the probe of the TWA Flight 800 crash. The action was taken as part of an obstruction-of-justice inquiry.”
“The Post is somewhat exercised because the Justice Department subpoenaed the AP reporter’s phone records without following … its own mandatory guidelines when considering seizing a journalist’s phone records,” Sanders told WND.
“Now, four years after the fact, I have finally uncovered FBI documents revealing why [the agency] panicked and illegally seized my phone records and computer,” Sanders continued. “The reddish-orange residue they insisted was glue – wasn’t.”
That is, he has discovered that the evidence he received four years ago – two pieces of foam rubber from a seat bearing red residue – tested positive for an explosive found in solid fuel missile or missile warhead.
Sanders was arrested by the FBI and charged with conspiracy to steal government property, even though he had been sent the two samples by Terrel Stacey, a TWA manager and 747 pilot, who was the No. 2 TWA man investigating Flight 800′s explosion.
“The FBI has classified as ‘national security’ its testing of the residue I obtained in early 1997″ from Stacey, “per FBI documents recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act,” Sanders told WND.
“The residue was evidence of a criminal conspiracy, within the Flight 800 investigation, to obstruct justice,” he said.
The federal jury that convicted Sanders and his wife, Liz, a former TWA flight attendant, was not allowed to know that Sanders was a reporter, let alone that he was pursuing evidence of a cover-up by the same government agencies prosecuting him and his wife. The jury convicted them both.