The commerce committee covers all means of communications in the U.S. – including telecommunications, free-to-air broadcasting and cable TV. It also has oversight over the Federal Communications Commission, the regulatory body that has final say on the issuing of broadcast licenses, including the 27 licenses issued to the Fox TV network that is the jewel in Murdoch's crown.
The FCC, which has come under pressure this week from ethics watchdogs calling for actions against News Corp., can revoke licenses if it deems that the companies holding them are not properly run in the public interest.
In his letter to Leveson, Rockefeller asks whether some of the more than 5,000 potential victims of phone hacking by the now-defunct News of the World may have been American. "I am concerned about the possibility that some of these undisclosed victims are U.S. citizens, and the possibility that telephone networks under the jurisdiction of U.S. laws were used to intercept their voice-mail messages."
He adds that he wants to know whether any News Corp business had "used hacking, bribing, or other similar tactics when operating in the U.S.".
In a scathing attack on the Murdoch company, Rockefeller writes: "In a democratic society, members of the media have the freedom to aggressively probe their government's activities and expose wrongdoing. But, like all other citizens, they also have a duty to obey the law.
"Evidence that is already in the public record clearly shows that for many years, News International had a widespread, institutional disregard for these laws."
Rockefeller also asks for details emerging from the Leveson inquiry that indicated whether any News Corp executives based in New York were aware of illegal payments made by News of the World to British police and other public officials. "I would be very concerned if evidence emerged suggesting that News Corporation officials in New York were also aware of these illegal payments and did not act to stop them."
The senator does not name individuals. Rupert Murdoch and his son James – who was until recently the chairman of News Corp's British newspaper division, News International – are based in the New York headquarters, as was Les Hinton, James Murdoch's predecessor, who was this week accused by the U.K. House of Commons Culture Committee of misleading parliament. Hinton resigned in July.
Rockefeller's intervention was triggered by the final report of the British parliament's culture, media and sport select committee, which concluded that Murdoch was not fit to run a major international company. It comes two weeks after Mark Lewis, a British lawyer at the forefront of the phone-hacking investigations, opened investigations into four cases of alleged phone hacking that occurred in the U.S.
Lewis, who won £3 million for the family of murdered teenager Milly Dowler from News International, said: "There are so many American aspects to this, it is difficult to know where to begin. Whether it is about American victims of hacking, or the failure of a U.S. company in respect of the corrupt practices of a foreign subsidiary, or the fact that material information was withheld from shareholders and potential investors: I suspect it is a race to find out which scandal lands first.
"It was only a matter of time before the U.S. authorities realized the significance of what had been happening in the U.K."
He is set to launch six cases in the US with Norman Siegel, an American lawyer who has previously represented families of September 11 victims. He has not divulged who his clients are, but it is known one is actress Koo Stark, who has been told by Metropolitan police detectives that she was targeted by the hacking operation run by the News of the World.
On Wednesday, the News Corp board issued a statement backing Rupert Murdoch, saying its members had "full confidence" in his" fitness" to run the company he built from a single newspaper in Adelaide.
News Corporation said that it based its vote of confidence on "Rupert Murdoch's vision and leadership" in building the company from its modest roots, "his ongoing performance", and his "demonstrated resolve to address the mistakes of the company identified in the select committee's report."
On the same day as the Senate commerce committee made its move, a second U.S. Sen., Frank Lautenberg, of New Jersey, renewed his call for a U.S. government investigation into whether News Corp broke anti-bribery and corruption laws. Lautenberg called for a robust inquiry into whether the company, by allegedly bribing public officials in he U.K., had breached the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which forbids American citizens or companies from engaging in acts of bribery abroad.
Intellpuke: You can read this article by Guardian Correspondent Ed Pilkington, reporting from New York City, N.Y., and Reporter Lisa O'Carroll in context here: www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/may/02/murdoch-phone-hacking-us-senator