By Jonathan S. Landay
McClatchy Washington Bureau
---- — WASHINGTON — The McClatchy Co. asked the Obama administration on Tuesday to explain news reports that U.S. intelligence agencies had helped that country’s military track cell phone calls made by a New Zealand journalist while he was working for McClatchy in Afghanistan.
McClatchy also asked whether the administration was aware of any collection of metadata from cell phones used by people who spoke with the journalist, Jon Stephenson, including McClatchy reporters and editors in the United States, and whether the “actual content of any e-mail or other communications was obtained.”
The requests were made in a letter sent to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper by Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy’s vice president for news, and Karole Morgan-Prager, the company’s general counsel and vice president for corporate development.
“We regard any targeted collection of the metadata of our journalists as a serious interference with McClatchy’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news. We therefore request clarification about whether any U.S. intelligence agencies helped in the collection, use and/or analysis of any metadata from the cell phone of McClatchy journalist Jon Stephenson,” the letter said.
The reports are “particularly alarming” as they said that Stephenson was targeted because the New Zealand military was unhappy with his reporting “about possible war crimes” committed in the handling of Afghan detainees by New Zealand special forces, and it wanted to identify his sources, the letter said.
“If the reports are accurate, the U.S. Government’s facilitation of such retaliatory monitoring of a reporter would be a serious breach of both the constitutional protection of newsgathering and the statutory limits imposed on the collection and use of communications information by intelligence agencies,” the letter said.
The letter came two days after a New Zealand newspaper reported that country’s military had sought the help of unidentified U.S. intelligence agencies to track cell phone calls made by Stephenson, who covered Afghanistan for McClatchy from January until November of last year.
According to the report in The Sunday Star Times of Auckland, the New Zealand military, which is part of the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan, also obtained metadata from the cellular phones of the journalist’s “associates,” who were not identified. The report said that information was used to draw a “tree” of links between Stephenson and his contacts.
While working for McClatchy, Stephenson used company cell phones and spoke frequently with editors and reporters in the company’s Washington Bureau and elsewhere.
New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman said in a statement Monday that he ordered an investigation to determine the veracity of the reports. But Coleman added he had seen “no evidence to support these claims at this point.”
Maj. Gen. Tim Keating, the acting head of the New Zealand Defense Force, denied in his own statement on Monday that the military “conducted monitoring” of Stephenson.
Keating’s statement, however, failed to specifically address the collection of metadata, which is information generated every time someone makes a cell phone call. It includes the number and location of a caller, the number and location of the person to whom a call is made, and the duration of a call.
Many experts say the information can be more valuable than contents of calls because it can be used to construct a portrait of a person’s contacts, social networks and habits.
“Absent a well-founded, good faith belief that a journalist is engaged in terrorist activity, compiling and analyzing a journalist’s metadata would violate core First Amendment principles and U.S. law,” the letter said.
The New Zealand reports come as the Obama administration and Congress grapple with the fallout from disclosures of classified documents by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, which showed that the agency routinely has collected and stored metadata from daily calls made by tens of millions of Americans.
Obama, his top aides and the congressional intelligence committees insist that the collection is aimed at identifying terrorists, authorized by a secret federal court and legal under the Patriot Act. The government cannot access the actual content of calls without a court warrant, they have said.
On Monday, Stephenson said he believed any tracking of his phone usage stemmed from investigative stories he wrote mostly between 2009 and 2011 about New Zealand special forces in 2002 turning over to U.S. troops and Afghan security personnel 55 Afghan detainees who were “harmed and tortured.” The prisoners were known as “ghost detainees” because their names were not recorded.