In an unbelievable act that the agency’s top officials are defending, the FBI has admitted that it created a phony news story in 2007 using an impersonation of an Associated Press (AP) reporter during a criminal investigation.
Shocked freedom of the press advocates say that the action has blurred the lines between the media and law enforcement in an irreparable manner, and it has generated no shortage of questions and concerns about whether the FBI even followed its own protocols.
In a recent letter to The New York Times, Director James Comey said that an FBI agent “portrayed himself as an employee of The Associated Press” seven years ago in order to catch a 15-year-old student who was suspected of making bomb threats at a high school near Olympia, Washington.
In early November, reports surfaced that the FBI had forged the AP story for its investigation, but Director Comey revealed in his letter to the Times that the agency actually went further by having an agent disguise himself as a reporter for the global newswire.
The top FBI official said that the agent who posed as an AP reporter requested the suspect review a phony AP article about threats and cyber attacks aimed at the school, “to be sure that the anonymous suspect was portrayed fairly.”
Final nail in the coffin for trust in the media (and government agencies)?
As reported by the AP:
The bogus article contained a software tool that could verify Internet addresses. The suspect clicked on a link, revealing his computer’s location and Internet address, which helped agents confirm his identity.
“That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and FBI guidelines at the time. Today, the use of such an unusual technique would probably require higher-level approvals than in 2007, but it would still be lawful and, in a rare case, appropriate,” Comey wrote to the Times.
As you might imagine, the AP did not concur. Kathleen Carroll, the wire service’s executive editor, labeled the FBI’s action “unacceptable,” adding in a statement:
“This latest revelation of how the FBI misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press doubles our concern and outrage, expressed earlier to Attorney General Eric Holder, about how the agency’s unacceptable tactics undermine AP and the vital distinction between the government and the press.”
The AP requested in a letter to the Justice Department in early November that the attorney generals promise that the department would never repeat the tactic of misrepresenting the AP, asking as well for policies to make sure that the DOJ no longer claims in investigations to represent media organizations.
An activist and free press organization, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a letter of its own to Comey and Holder, also requested that the department fully disclose everything about the incident.
Deception ‘has long been a critical tool‘ in FBI arsenal
“The utilization of news media as a cover for delivery of electronic surveillance software is unacceptable,” said the group’s letter. “This practice endangers the media’s credibility and creates the appearance that it is not independent of the government. It undermines media organizations’ ability to independently report on law enforcement.”
The letter added that the FBI’s tactic appears to be a violation of DOJ standards because there was no adequate review or disclosure about the phony story to the federal judge who approved the initial FBI warrant and counsel.
“The failure to comply with the FBI and Attorney General’s own requirements regarding news media impersonation is inexcusable,” stated the letter, which was co-signed by more than two dozen organizations, including The New York Times Company, the Gannett Co., The Washington Post, The McClatchy Company and the American Society of News Editors.
In his letter to the Times, though, Comey further defended the bureau’s actions, saying that all undercover operations involve deception, “which has long been a critical tool in fighting crime.”
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