FBI probes claim tabloid tried to hack 9/11 victims
The FBI launched a probe Thursday into allegations that Britain's 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 said the FBI 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 News of the World -- now defunct after allegedly hacking the phones of murder victims and bribing police -- 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.
US media reports suggested FBI investigators would seek to examine the US phone records of the 66 British victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks and might also seek records from Britain.
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, but it spawned fierce calls from US legislators, including senior senators, for a formal criminal probe.
The Mirror 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 investigator said the journalists seemed particularly interested in getting the phone records belonging to the British victims of the attacks," the source, who reportedly turned down the offer, was quoted as saying.
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 an interview Thursday with the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch dismissed this idea as "rubbish" and defended his company's handling of the scandal, saying it would recover from the crisis.
So far, though, the media magnate's more significant holdings in the United States have been unaffected by the saga.
© 2011 AFP