Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News television channel had a “black ops” department that may have illegally hacked private telephone records, a former executive for the station has alleged.
Dan Cooper, who helped launch Fox News as managing editor in 1996, said that a “brain room” carried out “counter intelligence” on the channel’s enemies from its New York headquarters.
He was threatened after it found out he spoke to a reporter, he claimed.
Another former senior executive said the channel ran a spying network on staff, reading their emails and making them “feel they were being watched”.
The channel, which has come under pressure amid allegations that outlets owned by Mr Murdoch might have attempted to hack the voicemail messages of September 11 victims, firmly denies all the allegations.
Mr Cooper, who left Fox News soon after its launch, provided a quote for a 1997 article about Roger Ailes, Fox News’s president, by the journalist David Brock in New York magazine. The quote was not going to be attributed to him, but he alleges that before the article was published, Mr Cooper’s agent received a telephone call from Mr Ailes threatening to withdraw Fox’s business from all his clients.
“There are only two possible ways Ailes found out,” Mr Cooper said. “Either Brock told him or they got hold of Brock’s phone records and saw I spoke to him.”
He first alleged that the records were obtained by researchers in the “brain room” in 2005 in an article on his website about the launch of the channel.
“Most people thought it was simply the research department of Fox News,” he wrote. “I knew it also housed a counter intelligence and black ops office. So accessing phone records was easy pie.”
Mr Cooper said yesterday that he helped to design the high-security unit. “It was staffed by 15 researchers and had a guard at the door. No one working there would engage in conversation.”
Mr Cooper said he was “willing to consider the possibility” that Mr Brock named him, but added: “I assume he operates under journalistic ethics and protected a confidential source. Brock told me at the time that Ailes told him he would never work again if he wrote the article.”
Mr Brock now runs Media Matters, a Left-leaning American media watchdog. A spokesman for the group said: “He declines to comment.”
Another former Fox News senior executive, who did not wish to be named, said staff were forced to operate under conditions reminiscent of “Russia at the height of the Soviet era”.
“There is a paranoid atmosphere and they feel they are being watched,” said the former executive. “I have no doubt they are spying on emails to ensure no one is leaking to outside media.
“There is a unit of spies that reports up to the boss about who was talking to whom. A lot of people are scared that they’re going to get sidelined or even that they’re going to get killed.”
A Fox News spokesman said: “Each of these allegations is completely false. Dan Cooper was terminated six weeks after the launch of the Fox News Channel in 1996 and has peddled these lies for the past 15 years.”
The FBI is investigating allegations that journalists on a British newspaper may have tried to have September 11 victims’ phones hacked. Both former Fox News executives said they thought Mr Ailes would never have let his reporters do likewise.
The Telegraph by Jon Swaine, New York