FBI probes 9/11 victims hacking claim
The FBI launched a probe Thursday into allegations that the News of the World contacted a private investigator in the United States in a bid to access the phone records of 9/11 victims.
Justice officials stressed that the inquiries were preliminary and didn't constitute a formal investigation, but the scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch's under-fire media empire has now firmly crossed the Atlantic.
News International, the British firm that owned the now defunct tabloid which allegedly hacked the phones of murder victims and bribed police officers, is a subsidiary of Murdoch's New York-based News Corporation.
US lawmakers have been calling for days for a probe into allegations that the phone records of 9/11 victims were sought, and into whether the alleged bribing of British police by a US-based company contravenes American law.
"We are aware of the allegations and we are looking into it," a spokeswoman told AFP from the FBI's offices in New York, where specialized cybercrime and white collar crime units were expected to make the inquiries.
"For allegations into the 9/11 victims, this would be done out of New York," a legal source told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said only: "The department does not comment specifically on investigations, though any time we see evidence of wrongdoing, we take appropriate action."
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, a Republican, had sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller urging him to look into allegations of possible News Corp. impropriety in the United States.
"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," he said.
Democratic Senators Jay Rockefeller and Barbara Boxer also urged Attorney General Eric Holder and Mary Schapiro, chief of the Wall Street watchdog Securities and Exchange Commission, to see if US laws had been broken.
"The reported allegations against News Corporation are very serious, indicate a pattern of illegal activity, and involve thousands of potential victims," the lawmakers said in a letter to Holder and Schapiro.
"It is important to ensure that no United States laws were broken and no United States citizens were victimized," the senators said.
After decades as Britain's political kingmaker, Murdoch has seen his empire threatened by a wave of public outrage since The News of the World tabloid admitted illegally intercepting people's voice messages.
The phone-hacking row had rumbled on for months but exploded last week after it emerged that the paper had targeted the messages of Milly Dowler, a murdered 13-year-old girl, and of the families of the veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Murdoch shut the 168-year-old tabloid on Sunday, and on Wednesday pulled out of the biggest media takeover bid in British history, for pay-TV giant BSkyB, before accepting to be grilled by lawmakers to try to limit the damage.
News Corp's shares have plummeted in the past week, and the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal reported that the media tycoon was considering selling off his remaining British newspapers, The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun.
In the United States, Murdoch's Fox News Channel is seen by many Democrats as a tool of their Republican rivals, while the network denies any bias.
So far, though, his more significant holdings in the United States have been unaffected by the scandal.
The allegation that News of the World staff contacted a private investigator in the United States and sought to retrieve the private phone records of 9/11 victims surfaced in a Daily Mirror report on Monday.
The British tabloid, a direct Murdoch competitor, only had one unnamed source to back up the report.
The source said a former New York cop, now working as a private investigator, told him he had been asked to provide details of the calls 9/11 victims made and received in the days leading up to the atrocity. The source reportedly said he had declined the offer.
© 2011 AFP