Spy tactics

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By G.W. Schulz

The Chronicle got scooped badly in late September when A.C. Thompson at the Weekly published a feature-length story revealing that the San Francisco Police Department had spied on reporters working out of the press office at the Hall of Justice. (My computer is still giving me a lot of shit, otherwise I'd post the links. Find 'em yourselves, friends.)

The Chron finally followed up on it yesterday with an explanation for why they had failed to do any story previously when they learned that the police department was pulling phone records to see who had leaked a department memo to crime reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken. The memo showed how top brass knew Alex Fagan Jr. – best recognized for his role in the Fajitagate scandal – had a serious temper. Derbeken’s original reporting on the memo surfaced shortly after Mini Fagan and two other off-duty officers clashed with two civilians over a bag of fajitas in 2002.

According to the most recent revelations, leak investigators gathered the home and cell phone numbers of reporters in town and scanned lists of calls entering the press office at the Hall. Two officers were later slapped with disciplinary charges for allegedly leaking the memo, but they were ultimately cleared.

Rather than exert energy working to oust or at least address ill-tempered cops, or even determine whether it’s ethical to scan phone calls made by reporters, the department spent it's time worrying about leaks. Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like the Bush White House.

And amazingly, the Chronicle knew about all of this. Why did they wait around for three years until the Weekly could scoop them on it? Even the network affiliates were reporting the story after the Weekly broke it and the mayor was forced to take a position.

From the Chron’s Sunday piece:

Chronicle editors regretted their decision not to write about the issue earlier, saying that they were focused more on whether the practice was illegal, rather than exploring potential ethical quandaries. ‘Part of the reason I didn’t have the story assigned was that the police hadn’t done anything illegal,’ said Stephen R. Proctor, Chronicle deputy managing editor for news. ‘I probably should have given more weight to the question of whether they had done something improper.’”

Previously, the phones inside the Hall were maintained by the city, and that apparently provided wiggle room for the legal justification -- backed up by the city attorney’s office -- to spy on reporters using the press-office phone. Press offices are not uncommon at city halls, police departments and courthouses across the country.

One of the two former police officers accused of leaking the memo said he was “embarrassed that the Chronicle would not go to war about these issues.”

Either way, the police commission is acting pissed off at the department about the Weekly’s discoveries, and the department itself has – get this – spun it all into a fucking homeland security matter. Leak investigator Morris Tabak told the Chronicle that the department has to have access to such phone lines in case a “bomb threat” is made to the press office. Amazing.

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