The FBI has begun a preliminary inquiry based on concerns in Congress over a report that media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. sought to hack into the phones of Sept. 11 victims, a law enforcement official said Thursday.
The decision to step in was made after U.S. Rep. Peter King and several other members of Congress wrote to FBI Director Robert Mueller demanding an investigation, said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
The official stressed that the review was in its infancy but declined to discuss the scope of it or say what steps had been taken. The FBI routinely makes preliminary inquiries into issues raised by lawmakers and others to determine whether a full-blown investigation is needed.
News Corp., based in New York, has been in crisis mode because of a scandal that sank its U.K. newspaper the News of the World.
A rival newspaper reported last week that the News of the World had hacked into the phone of U.K. teenage murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002 and may have impeded a police investigation into her disappearance. More possible victims soon emerged: other child murder victims, 2005 London bombing victims, the families of dead soldiers and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The suggestion that Sept. 11 victims also may have been targeted surfaced Monday in the Mirror, a British competitor of News Corp.'s The Sun. The newspaper quoted an anonymous source as saying an unidentified American investigator had rejected approaches from unidentified journalists who showed a particular interest in British victims.
British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed Wednesday that the claim would be investigated there.
U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said Thursday that the department "does not comment specifically on investigations, though anytime we see evidence of wrongdoing, we take appropriate action."
The FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in New York declined to comment.
King's letter had called for "an immediate investigation," saying it was an "urgent matter."
King, a Republican, said Thursday afternoon he had not officially been contacted by the FBI and said he wanted to reserve comment until he hears from the agency.
"If they do, I'd be gratified," he said in a brief telephone interview with the AP.
News Corp. executives are at risk of being found criminally or civilly liable for phone hacking that originated in Britain under the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and they are at risk under federal wire-tapping and state privacy laws if it is found that U.S. citizens such as Sept. 11 victims were targeted, experts say.
But the experts doubt that such actions could jeopardize News Corp.'s U.S. newspaper holdings such as The Wall Street Journal or result in the revocation of the license it needs to own Fox TV stations in America.
"I think we're a long way from that," said Philip Raible, a partner at New York law firm Rayner Rowe LLP, which specializes in corporate law affecting media companies.
Murdoch said Thursday his media company will recover from any damage wrought by the phone-hacking and police bribery allegations.
Several relatives of Sept. 11 victims said they had not been contacted by the FBI about the inquiry. Some asked what the motivation for any hacking could have been.
Little new information would have come to light from hearing victims' last phone calls, they said.
"It doesn't make sense," said Rosemary Cain, of Massapequa, N.Y., whose firefighter son George Cain was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. "We're all average people, we've all suffered a loss, we're all trying to put one foot in front of the other. Why they would think there was anything interesting in hacking into anyone's phone, I don't know."
Michael Burke, of the Bronx, whose brother William F. Burke Jr. was a fire department captain, said he was "befuddled" by the report.
"If it did happen it's bizarre and depraved and they should investigate it thoroughly," he said.