On Thursday, Steven McElroy, a manager at the New York Times, sent out a bulk email to some of the paper's staffers warning them about recent phone calls from suspicious individuals trying to obtain personal information about Times reporters.
According to the email, one recent caller contacted the Times trying to obtain the whereabouts of a Times stringer who lives in Pakistan, where he reports on Al Qaeda and terrorist activities in the region.
The Times reported the incident to the FBI.
Staffers were instructed to write up emails about similar incidents in the future and to warn security.
Full text of the email after the jump.
We have had a couple of recent reports of callers misrepresenting
themselves, and asking for personal information about staff members. I
know that you are all very careful about what you divulge, but I want to remind you to be especially cautious given the following situations.
On the Foreign desk, a recent caller was asking about Ismail Khan, a
stringer who lives in Peshawar and focuses on Al Qaeda and terrorist
attacks there and in Afghanistan. The caller claimed to be a friend of
Ismail's wife and said Ismail had not returned from work that day. He
wanted to know if we knew where Ismail was. The clerk did not give out any information. The caller phoned again later that evening asking the same questions and gave the name Hassan Mustaba. We learned later that
neither Ismail nor his wife knew the caller and the incident was reported to our own security people and to the FBI.
Another clerk got calls on both Metro and Bizday from a person saying
he was Adam Nagourney and needed information about another reporter he was trying to reach. This type of situation can be even trickier as you may not know the particular reporter personally and, especially if you are relatively new on a given desk, you might be inclined to be obedient and deferential. Don't. If you are at all in doubt ask the desk admin or an editor to help.
Please let me know right away about any similar situations that you
have encountered, or do encounter in the future. Also, if you have a caller who is threatening (beyond the usual "I hate your newspaper/coverage/story" comments) or trying to gain access in a sneaky way — let us know: write up a quick email of the incident so we can report it to security.
This is not a simple matter of refusing to give any information to
anyone anytime, and we know that. It's your ability to discern the real (Susan Chira calls on the weekend asking for Helen Verongos's home number)from the fake (either of the recent examples cited above). Making that determination is not always easy, but is always important so just be careful and when in doubt, speak up.
That said, we do try to live by some basic rules, like don't give out
whereabouts or direct numbers for reporters or editors to those outside
the building. Offer instead to take their contact information and forward it, or forward an email. If the inquiry seems urgent and legitimate, you might even conference the caller and reporter together for a conversation, or find some other creative and secure solution.
Lemme know if you have thoughts on this, experiences to relate, etc.
And let us also say this: as always, we rely on your instincts and news
judgement to funnel good information upward, and bad information, well– outward. We appreciate that you apply that judgement in real time to many phone calls every day.