The FBI has abandoned its effort to recover government documents leaked to Jack Anderson, a longtime investigative reporter who died in December 2005.
The documents, which some officials said might have contained classified information, were among the late columnist’s confidential papers. They touched off a dispute between the FBI and the journalist’s family and biographer.
At the heart of the dispute were concerns about government investigations of reporters and whether they might violate constitutional protections of the press.
In blunt answers to a 147-page questionnaire from the Senate Judiciary Committee, dated Nov. 30, Acting Associate Attorney General James H. Clinger said the FBI was not seeking any of Anderson’s documents.
“Under which statute do you seek to reclaim the Jack Anderson documents?” asked the committee in its questionnaire, which was recently posted Wednesday on the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists.
Answered Clinger: “The FBI met with the Anderson family in an effort to review the files with their consent. At this time, the FBI is not seeking to reclaim any documents.”
An FBI spokesman declined to comment Wednesday evening.
Anderson died at age 83 after a career in which he broke several big scandals and earned a place on former President Nixon’s “enemies list.” Authorities on several occasions tried to find the source of leaked information that became a staple of his syndicated column.
Not long after his funeral, FBI agents called Anderson’s widow to say they wanted to search his papers.
At the time, the FBI confirmed it wanted to remove any classified materials from Anderson’s archives, located at George Washington University, before they are made available to the public. An FBI spokesman said then that the bureau had determined that some of Anderson’s papers contained classified information about sources and methods used by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Anderson’s son and his biographer said they were questioned by agents who expressed interest in documents that would aid the government’s case against two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who have been charged with disclosing classified information.
But the biographer, George Washington University journalism professor Mark Feldstein, said Wednesday that he and family members told the FBI there was no classified material in the hundreds of boxes holding Anderson’s files.
“It was dusty old stuff that I couldn’t imagine would be relevant to a criminal probe,” Feldstein said.
He added: “We’ve been holding our breath, wondering if they were going to come after us further. I’m relieved to hear they have backed away from what I think was a pretty egregious overreach, to be going after papers of a dead reporter for classified documents from decades ago.”
Clinger’s letter was addressed to outgoing Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. It did not explain why the FBI had dropped the probe, and a Republican aide to the committee said Wednesday that was also unclear to lawmakers.