In a sign that the British scandal involving media mogul Rupert Murdoch is coming under closer scrutiny in the United States, the FBI has launched a probe investigating possible journalistic wrong-doing in this country.
According to several reports Thursday, the FBI inquiry comes as a result of requests by several members of Congress.
Specifically, Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, wants to know if victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and their families may have been the subject of illegal or unethical actions by News Corporation, Murdoch’s parent company, whose holdings include the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Fox Broadcasting Company.
In Great Britain, Murdoch abruptly shut down the Sunday tabloid News of the World following charges that the organization’s journalists had hacked into cell phones and paid police officers for information – including private information about the victims of terrorist attacks and soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
Similar (though unproven) charges have been made regarding a private investigator and former New York City police officer, offered payment for information about 9/11 victims.
"If these allegations are proven true," Representative King wrote to FBI Director Robert Mueller, "the conduct would merit felony charges for attempting to violate various federal statutes related to corruption of public officials and prohibitions against wiretapping. Any person found guilty of this purported conduct should receive the harshest sanctions available under law."
Based on off-the-record interviews with sources familiar with the US probe, the New York Times reported Thursday, the inquiry is expected to be handled jointly by two FBI squads in New York, one that investigates cybercrimes and another that focuses on public corruption and white-collar crimes.
"We are doing this based on [congressional] requests," an FBI source told the Los Angeles Times. "After reviewing the letters and their allegations, and after consultation with the US Attorney's Office in New York, we are proceeding."
"The US government must ensure that victims in the United States have not been subjected to illegal and unconscionable actions by these newspapers seeking to exploit information about their personal tragedies for profit," Senator Menendez wrote to US Attorney General Eric Holder. "Given the large scope of Scotland Yard's investigation which reportedly includes a list of 3,870 names, 5,000 land-line phone numbers and 4,000 cell phone numbers that may have been hacked, I believe it is imperative to investigate whether victims in the United States have been affected as well."
In a Wall Street Journal interview Thursday, Mr. Murdoch said News Corp. has handled the crisis "extremely well in every way possible," making just "minor mistakes."
Murdoch said the company would establish an independent committee to "investigate every charge of improper conduct." The committee, he added, will be headed by a "distinguished non-employee."
When the scandal broke, he said, his son James Murdoch – the company’s deputy chief operating officer – “acted as fast as he could, the moment he could.” And in terms of his own role in recent days, the elder Murdoch said, "When I hear something going wrong, I insist on it being put right."
After first declining, Murdoch agreed to appear before a parliamentary committee in London next week.
“We think it's important to absolutely establish our integrity in the eyes of the public,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I felt that it's best just to be as transparent as possible."