WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9) - Turns out government agents really are listening.
Federal prosecutors today informed our Bruce Johnson that he, and many other people, had their communications picked up on FBI wiretaps.
Agents were tapping the cell phones of a now-disgraced DC Councilman Michael Brown.
"I'm not going to be surprised if I call someone at some point in the near future and they say 'I can't talk to you because the FBI might be listening,' said Johnson, laughing through his very real concern. "Bottom line, of course it's unsettling when you get a call saying the FBI has heard part of your conversation in the course of you doing your job."
The US Attorney's Office emailed Johnson that while tapping Brown's phone, "wire and/or electronic communications to or from your telephone were intercepted." "They won't tell me when the phone call was made," says Johnson. "They won't say how long the phone call was, they won't say the nature of the conversation."
Justice Department rules do offer journalists a little extra protection if they are the target of a wiretap but in this case, it was Brown they were after.
"My question is, I'm a journalist. I'm asking the same questions they're asking. So how to they categorize my conversation with Michael Brown. I want to know about the investigation. I want to know about the charges, same as the FBI and every other reporter. So why wouldn't they listen to my phone conversation?"
Bill Miller, spokesman for US Attorney Ron Machen, says at the time of the wiretap no one outside his office and the FBI knew about the investigation.
Months later, Brown pleaded guilty to tens of thousands of dollars in bribes handed over in bundles and stuffed into coffee mugs.
Johnson is among the most dogged urban affairs reporters in the country and he had been out in front of the scandals plaguing the DC Council. So perhaps it is no surprise that his texts or phone calls were swept up by investigators.
Now he is worried some sources will refuse to talk on the phone, even though he was not the target of the wiretap. Not only does it have an impact on our ability to get the hard to get story. It has an impact on those people who want the real information and the truth out.
Our lawyers' biggest concerns was whether prosecutors might use the wiretap in future court proceedings. But the US Attorney's spokesman says the record is sealed, and because Brown pleaded guilty, prosecutors do not expect to use Bruce Johnson's communication in any way.
Here's a statement from the US Attorney's Office:
"As has been widely reported, during the investigation which led to former Council Member Michael A. Brown's conviction on a bribery charge, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia authorized the interception of wire and electronic communications on two cell phones used by Mr. Brown during the relevant time period.
"Thus, some communications between Mr. Brown and individuals not otherwise connected to the government's investigation were intercepted. Significantly, law enforcement utilized procedures to minimize and reduce to the smallest possible number the amount of innocent and non-pertinent communications that were intercepted between individuals and the target of its investigations.
"The government, as it does in all of its Title III investigations, recently provided notice to individuals who were named in the court orders authorizing interceptions or whose communications with Mr. Brown were intercepted during the course of its investigation. The contents of those intercepted communications will remain sealed, will not be used for any other purpose, and are not anticipated to result in any additional charges against Mr. Brown or anyone else."