WASHINGTON -- The FBI has ordered an Internet provider to cease distributing the unedited video of journalist Daniel Pearl being brutally murdered.
On Thursday afternoon, FBI agents from the Newark field office told a Virginia company to delete the 4-minute video, which a customer had posted on the ogrish.com site.
Pro Hosters, located in Sterling, Virginia, responded by consulting with its customer and removing the video -- which has sprouted on scores of websites after Pearl, a 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter, was slain in Pakistan by a radical Muslim group.
A videotape of Pearl's execution was delivered to a U.S. consulate in February, and a copy eventually appeared online. This month, CBS News broadcast a 30-second excerpt, which anchor Dan Rather defended as necessary to "understand the full impact and danger of the propaganda war being waged."
Ted Hickman, the owner of Pro Hosters, said the FBI insisted the video be removed immediately and that agents also wanted the identity of the person who runs the ogrish.com site.
"I said that of course I can't release anything without a subpoena," Hickman said. "They said they needed the content offline as soon as possible. I called back and I spoke to both him and his supervisor. Both assured me that it was illegal to post anything related to obscenity."
Sandra Carroll, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Newark office, said "the local office did investigate certain aspects" of the Internet distribution of the Pearl video.
Carroll said she was not that familiar with the investigation, and only knew that "some type of law was quoted in terms of a violation."
Carroll said she would investigate what charges, if any, could be filed.
The contours of the FBI's investigation are anything but clear. A 1996 federal obscenity law exists, but it only applies to work that "appeals to the prurient interest" -- and Pearl's video, as disturbing as it might be, is hardly sexual.
Pro Hosters' Hickman reports the FBI said Dow Jones, the owner of The Wall Street Journal, had contacted them about the video.
Steve Goldstein, a spokesman for Dow Jones, said, "We don't believe that there's any good purpose for showing the Daniel Pearl video."
Goldstein said that when Dow Jones spots a copy of the video online, it calls the cops. "We would notify law enforcement," Goldstein said. "It would be up to law enforcement (to investigate)."
"Obviously we're aware that the video is on the Internet," said Steve Barry, a spokesman for the FBI's Washington headquarters. "Any other legal questions should go to the Department of Justice."
The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's office in Newark, New Jersey, both declined to comment, saying they could not discuss investigations in progress.
Barry Steinhardt, the associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he "can't imagine what argument the government is making that they can prohibit a website from publishing" the videotape.
"It's clearly not obscene," Steinhardt said. "I'm sure it's macabre and horrible, but it's not obscene. The publication on a website of this videotape is protected under the First Amendment. Whether it's wise or not I'll leave for others to comment."
One explanation is that the FBI agents were bluffing about possible "obscenity" charges.
"They were definitely trying to intimidate me into taking it down without the paperwork," said Pro Hosters's Hickman.
The ogrish.com site features a gallery of disturbing images and video -- a typical title is "Woman has been raped and mutilated." Ogrish.com's owner did not respond to a request for an interview.
But Hickman says the FBI never complained about other ogrish.com content. "The only thing they mentioned to me was the video of Pearl," Hickman said. "They said the family was suing other organizations that have posted the site. They didn't say take down the site. They mentioned the obscenity of the video itself."
After CBS News aired the video, Pearl's widow denounced the decision as "heartless."
Sandy Genelius, a spokeswoman for CBS News, said no lawsuit has been filed against the company by Pearl's family. "I've haven't heard one thing about it and have no reason to believe it's anything more than a rumor," she said.
An editor at Rotten.com, which posted an edited copy of the execution video, said the site has not been contacted by Pearl's widow or his family. A notice on Rotten.com's "Daily Rotten" section says: "In consideration to the Pearl family, while recognizing the importance of bringing you an uncut version of this film, we have blocked out the graphic images of Pearl's death, leaving the rest of the video intact."
Rotten.com said its copy of the Pearl video, compressed to an 80 Kbps-format, is 2.5 MB in size and 3.5 minutes in duration.
It hardly seems likely that even the best efforts of Dow Jones and the FBI will be enough to rid the Internet of the unedited video. It appears to be available on Yahoo's Geocities, on consumptionjunction.com, bangedup.com, and shopping-nice.com. It also seems to have surfaced on the venerable Usenet newsgroup alt.binaries.pictures.tasteless with the Subject: "Why We Fight Jihad."
This isn't the first time the FBI has tried similar tactics. In 1999, the FBI pressured an Internet service provider to remove a spoof video purporting to be a Y2K military briefing. Last year, FBI agents launched an investigation into the bonsaikitten.com site. (Editor's Note: After this story was edited, FBI spokeswoman Sandra Carroll called Wired News to say the bureau was merely giving advice to websites hosting the Pearl video -- and was not threatening prosecution. She said: "Apparently the conversation with [FBI agent] Jay Kanetkar has been similar to other conversations with other website hosts, appealing to have various of those photos removed. Apparently there is another website here in the U.S. which Jay did not name, both of which were more than happy to voluntarily remove the photos without question.") Julia Scheeres contributed to this report.
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