The FBI have some explaining to do after they were caught creating fake news stories in order to catch suspects.
The lawsuit filed by The Associated Press demands that the agency hand over information about a fake story they put out in AP’s name regarding a bomb threat at a school.
According to FBI Director James Comey, the act of putting out fake stories is commonplace, “We do use deception at times to catch crooks, but we are acting responsibly and legally“, he told the New York Times.
The AP sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI last year seeking documents related to the 2014 sting. It also seeks to know how many times the FBI has used such a ruse since 2000. The FBI responded to the AP saying it could take two years or more to gather the information requested. Unsatisfied with the response, the Associated Press has taken the matter to court.
An Electronic Frontier Foundation FOIA request on a different matter revealed the strategy in 2011, but it wasn’t made public until last year, when privacy researcher Chris Soghoian saw evidence of the operation in the documents and tweeted about it. That spurred both the AP and The Seattle Times to complain vocally about the FBI’s behavior.
“The FBI both misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press and created a situation where our credibility could have been undermined on a large scale,” AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser wrote in a letter to then-AG Eric Holder last year.
FBI Director James Comey defended the action in a New York Times op-ed. “We do use deception at times to catch crooks, but we are acting responsibly and legally,” he wrote.
In the op-ed, Comey admitted that not only did the FBI create a fake news story, one of its agents impersonated an AP journalist.
The 2007 operation began when the FBI was contacted by police in Lacey, Washington, after a series of bomb threats were placed to Timberline High School in May and June of that year.
The FBI e-mailed the fake news story via a link to a suspect’s MySpace account. The e-mail was made to look like it came from The Seattle Times. When the suspect clicked on the link, FBI software revealed his location and IP address to agents working the case. A juvenile suspect was arrested on June 14, 2007.
A month later, the student was sentenced to 90 days’ juvenile probation and ordered to pay $8,852 to compensate the school for additional security.
The Associated Press filed today’s lawsuit together with the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, which put in its own FOIA request last year. The lawsuit notes that it has been nearly 300 days since the original request was made and says the FBI failed to respond to the request as it’s legally required to do.