NEW YORK –- The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is looking into a newspaper report that U.S. intelligence agencies helped New Zealand's military spy on a journalist working for the McClatchy newspaper chain, a spokesman told The Huffington Post.
On Tuesday, the McClatchy Company, the third-largest newspaper chain in the United States, pressed the Obama administration for answers after New Zealand's Sunday Star-Times reported that the New Zealand Defense Force, with U.S. assistance, intercepted metadata from the cellphone of Jon Stephenson, a journalist reporting for McClatchy in Afghanistan.
The New Zealand military could use the metadata to determine who Stephenson “had phoned and then who those people had phoned, creating what the sources called a ‘tree’ of the journalist's associates," according to the report. Such a collection of data could potentially sweep in McClatchy reporters and editors in contact with Stephenson while he was working for the news organization.
McClatchy vice president for news Anders Gyllenhaal and general counsel Karole Morgan-Prager expressed the news organization’s concerns in a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and copied several top officials at the National Security Agency.
"Director Clapper has reviewed the letter and directed his staff to immediately look into the issues raised," an ODNI spokesman told HuffPost. "He looks forward to providing a response."
In the letter, McClatchy executives requested clarification as to “whether US intelligence agencies helped in the collection, use and/or analysis of any metadata” from Stephenson’s phone, including any phone numbers, email and other accounts for which his metadata was compiled and if such collection involved communications with McClatchy journalists and editors.
“We regard any targeted collection of the metadata of journalists as a serious interference with McClatchy’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news,” they wrote.
In the Sunday Star-Times, journalist Nicky Hager reported that the spying occurred while New Zealand Defense Forces were “unhappy at Stephenson's reporting of its handling of Afghan prisoners and ... trying to find out who was giving him confidential information.”
Hager also revealed that a leaked New Zealand military manual lists “certain investigative journalists” as security threats alongside foreign intelligence service and terrorist organizations. “In the minds of the defence chiefs,” Hager wrote, “probing journalists apparently belong on the same list as the KGB and al Qaeda.”
In the letter, Gyllenhaal and Karole Morgan-Prager said the press accounts suggesting the reason for targeting Stephenson was the military’s displeasure “over his reporting about possible war crimes committed by New Zealand’s special forces,” were “particularly alarming.”
“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.”
Stephenson, a New Zealand native and an award-winning, Auckland-based journalist, recently brought a defamation case against a military official who called into question his 2011 reporting that New Zealand’s Special Air Service troops had “passed prisoners to authorities known to use torture.”
On Monday, New Zealand government disputed the Sunday Star-Times report and U.S. officials suggested to the Associated Press that the NSA, already under fire over surveillance revelations, did not monitor Stephenson's phone conversations with Afghan sources.
The AP, citing an unnamed U.S. intelligence official, reported “that any surveillance could have been run by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which oversees war zone intelligence missions.”