When journalism professor Mark Feldstein left his work as an investigative reporter to teach at GW in 2002, he thought the days of dealing with federal investigators were behind him.
“I thought that when I switched to academia, that this was the slow lane,” said Feldstein, the director of GW’s journalism program. “I thought I was done with subpoenas and search warrants, and low and behold the FBI is knocking at my door even here.”
Federal investigators have recently questioned the professor as part of an investigation into former newspaper columnist and muckraker Jack Anderson’s documents to locate possible classified files relating to a case involving two Israelis accused of espionage. Anderson’s documents are currently located at GW as a result of Feldstein’s close relationship with Anderson, now deceased, and his family. Feldstein said the documents are at an undisclosed location and under surveillance of GW security to ensure that no one can go through the files.
“Normally, you want to cooperate with the FBI, but this is a really fishy case by the FBI. I’ve been through the records, there’s nothing that I have seen that involves any ongoing criminal activity,” he said.
Debbie Wireman, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Washington field office, believes the FBI has the proper rights to search through Anderson’s documents.
“The FBI has information to the effect that there are classified documents contained in Mr. Anderson’s papers,” Wireman said. “It is incumbent that we’re directed by law that if a citizen has in his or her possession classified government documents, then that material needs to be returned to the property of U.S. government.”
Feldstein interned for Anderson early in his career, but that was not his first job in journalism. Having an interest in reporting from a young age, Feldstein worked on his high school newspaper and then the Harvard Crimson at Harvard University. He later entered broadcast journalism as an investigative reporter for WUSA-TV, CNN and ABC News.
“I dug up the muck wherever it was for some local stations and then at the networks so I exposed every type of wrongdoing I could find,” Feldstein said. “Social welfare abuses, political corruption, corporate crimes, government and bureaucratic bungling. If it was there, I tried to dig it out.”
Feldstein’s reports, which have led to him being injured, sued and detained, have contributed to social changes and disclosed wrongdoings. His expos?s have led to developments in the prosecution of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry in the 1980s for possession of cocaine and exposed illegal slave trafficking in Florida in 1983, a report he considers one of his favorites.
“(Migrant farm workers) would be sold for cash from one crew leader to another,” Feldstein said. “If they tried to escape, they’d be beaten up; they were held against their will.”
Feldstein has been researching Anderson for a book on the journalist’s feuds with former President Richard Nixon titled “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington Scandal Culture.”
Feldstein said Anderson is “the Bob Woodward of his era” and fears that allowing the government to search through the files may make whistleblowers weary of confiding in reporters.
Feldstein was not the only GW community member to be questioned by the FBI. Elbert Ventura was among a few graduate students to receive questioning about the documents in recent months.
Feldstein asked Ventura, a student in his class last spring and a research assistant for the professor’s book, to be with him for the FBI questioning this March. Both said they denied seeing or knowing of any classified documents, and Ventura received follow-up investigation by FBI agents a few days later.
“They called me to ask about the other grad students who worked with him and also asked if I was sure I didn’t see anything,” Ventura said.
GW continues to stand by the Anderson family and has hired an archivist to properly document the papers.
“We have been in frequent communication with the family to ensure that as this FBI inquiry advances that the wishes of the family are being honored, and the family wishes to protect the integrity of the papers,” Director of Media Relations Tracy Schario said. “It really boils down to a question of freedom of the press, freedom of expression and First Amendment freedoms, and the University has a long history of supporting and defending those.”
Kevin Anderson, son of Jack Anderson, said that he appreciates Feldstein’s and GW’s support and believes that if any classified documents exist within his father’s files, they would be from a time in the 1960s and 1970s when the government abused the classification policy in order to keep government wrongdoings private. He feels allowing the government to search through the papers violates his father’s rights.
“I find that government going through all of his papers and receiving unfettered access is outrageous to journalists and the First Amendment,” Anderson said.
Wireman disagrees that the agency’s inquiry is an issue of the freedom of the press, as the fact that the elder Anderson was a journalist does not play a factor in the situation.
“We have it on good authority that there is classified information contained in the papers of Mr. Anderson, and in accordance with the law, the FBI needs to access the papers in order to retrieve the classified material,” Wireman said. “This has become of great interest to the media because Mr. Anderson was in fact a journalist. It has nothing to do with that fact.”
Feldstein has been delighted by the press coverage the case has received, as it has allowed for him to incorporate the ordeal in his classes. He has presented video of a broadcast news report on the case and invited Ventura to speak about being interviewed by the FBI. He also believes the press coverage has helped lead to the FBI backing off on its pursuit of the documents.
“This is a great example of why a free press is needed in society,” Feldstein said. “Sometimes, only exposure to the sunlight gets people to do the right thing.”