the audit

The Mirror‘s Dodgy “9/11 Hacking” Story

A piece that triggers an FBI probe reports no actual hacking and its information is third-hand
July 14, 2011

In response to calls from Congress, the FBI has opened an investigation into whether News Corp. journalists hacked the cell phones of 9/11 victims, as they did the phones of crime and terror victims in the U.K.

We don’t know what the FBI knows, of course, or what it was exactly that led Rep. Peter King to lead calls for the investigation. King only says, with my emphasis:

According [to] the recent reports, journalists working for the News of the World solicited a New York police officer to gain access to the content of private phone records of 9/11 victims from the days leading to the attacks. It is revolting to imagine that members of the media would seek to compromise the integrity of a public official for financial gain in the pursuit of yellow journalism. The 9/11 families have suffered egregiously, but unfortunately they remain vulnerable against such unjustifiable parasitic strains. We can spare no effort or expense in continuing our support for them.

A call to King’s office wasn’t immediately returned. I’ll update if and when.

But this story, which ran in the Daily Mirror (U.K.) on Monday, appears to be the first—and, so far, only—one in the known universe that purports to offer independent evidence of any such hacking. And it’s basically bollocks, or whatever they say over there.

Naturally, the official action by Congress and the FBI led news organizations and bloggers to link to more information about the story, and the Mirror story is the one that comes up. This HuffPo story on King’s call for the probe links to the Mirror story. Audit contributor Felix Salmon links to it, too, in a post on whether Murdoch is on his way out. Michael Collins finds it, too, linking to John Del Signore of The Gothamist, who notes wisely that the sourcing is “unsubstantiated” and that, “Of course, this has only been reported in The Mirror, which is reveling in its rival’s downfall….”

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Perhaps it’s been advanced, and I’ve missed it. But, we should be clear, the original Mirror story offers no evidence that any 9/11 phone was actually hacked, and it seems clear that the paper didn’t talk directly to anyone who was actually approached by a journalist for 9/11 victims’ phone information. It’s not even clear if the offending journalists were even from NotW.

The Mirror directly quotes only an unnamed source who told the paper that he or she had been told by another unnamed person, a retired New York police officer, that he, the cop, had been approached by “journalists”—not even British journalists— and that he turned the job down. Period.

No hacking. No NotW, even.

Here is the relevant passage from the Mirror, with my emphasis:

But he [Murdoch, natch] flew straight into another storm as it was claimed 9/11 victims may have had their mobiles tapped by News of the World reporters. And there was more bad news when it was revealed nine reporters ­allegedly at the centre of the phone scandal and claims of police corruption could face jail, along with three officers.

After he spent time at News International’s Wapping HQ in East London, 80-year-old Mr Murdoch held crisis talks with Mrs Brooks, 43 – who denies any knowledge of the Milly phone tapping – at his home in Mayfair.

First of all, nowhere in this piece is it even “claimed” that “9/11 victims may have had their mobiles tapped.” As we’ll see, even if everything in here is true, all it says is that NotW tried to get phone records of victims and failed. That’s it.

Next paragraphs:

The pair chatted behind closed doors as a former New York cop made the 9/11 hacking claim. He alleged he was contacted by News of the World journalists who said they would pay him to retrieve the private phone records of the dead.

Now working as a private ­investigator, the ex-officer claimed reporters wanted the victim’s phone numbers and details of the calls they had made and received in the days leading up to the atrocity.

So far, it seems like a good story, as far as it goes: an ex-cop appears to be telling the Mirror that NotW journalists approached him, apparently, while he was still on the force. But wait. Notice that there are no quote marks around the ex-cop’s “claims.”

Did the Mirror actually talk to the ex-cop? Or did the Mirror talk to someone else, who had spoken to the cop?

Here are the next paragraphs. Suddenly, we’re talking about an unnamed source who says he/she talked to the unnamed ex-cop. Notice these are direct quotes:

A source said: “This investigator [i.e. the ex-NYPD officer] is used by a lot of journalists in America and he recently told me that he was asked to hack into the 9/11 victims’ private phone data. He said that the journalists asked him to access records showing the calls that had been made to and from the mobile phones belonging to the victims and their ­relatives.

His presumption was that they wanted the information so they could hack into the ­relevant voicemails, just like it has been shown they have done in the UK. The PI said he had to turn the job down. He knew how insensitive such research would be, and how bad it would look.

“The investigator said the ­journalists seemed particularly interested in getting the phone records belonging to the British victims of the attacks.”

Notice, NotW and News Corp. aren’t mentioned by name even by the second “source,” let alone the ex-cop source.

Is it beyond the realm of possibility that NotW reporters tried to hack 9/11 victims? Of course not. Should the FBI investigate? Sure.

Did hacking actually take place? Based on this story, the answer so far is no.

Do we even know that NotW reporters even tried?

Based on this story, no, we don’t. Third-hand information on a story of such sensitivity isn’t good enough. The Mirror should have worked harder, at least, to speak to the cop directly. What do we know about the cop? Does he really remember the name of the specific British newspaper whose reporters were asking for the information, ten years ago?

As written, it shouldn’t have run. You tell me it’s just a British tabloid, and I say I don’t care. Isn’t this how we got into this mess?

I know this is a competitive story, but tough. It’s not that NotW deserves any better, but readers do.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR’s business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.