New York, November 7, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the revelation that a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent pretended to be an Associated Press reporter as part of a criminal investigation and calls on authorities to halt use of the tactic.
The New York Times published online Thursday a letter to the editor dated Wednesday from FBI Director James Comey, in which the director revealed that an unidentified FBI agent posed as an AP reporter to a suspect. The letter was in response to an October 31 New York Times editorial in which the Times condemned the bureau’s “deceptions” in a 2007 criminal investigation of a teenager suspected of making bomb threats against a Seattle high school.
In late October, The Seattle Times reported that documents uncovered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation showed that the Seattle FBI bureau had sent a fake AP article to the suspect’s MySpace page. When the suspect clicked on the link, malware was installed on his computer that allowed the agents to identify his Internet Protocol address and location. The suspect was later arrested and convicted, according to news reports.
In his letter to the Times, Comey wrote that an online undercover officer presented himself as an AP reporter to the suspect and asked him to review the draft of an article on the bomb threats in order to be sure that suspect was portrayed accurately. Comey wrote that the article was never published and no one but the suspect ever interacted with the fake journalist or saw the falsified article.
Justifying the bureau’s actions, Comey wrote: “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.”
“We are greatly concerned by the news that an FBI agent posed as a journalist and call for an immediate review of the policies that led to this action,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Having federal agents pose as journalists not only threatens the credibility of a news organization–its most prized asset–but also erodes the perceived independence of the media.”
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the fake Associated Press article, the AP requested an accounting of how often the Justice Department has used news organizations as cover identities in investigations and called on Holder to publicly commit that it would not happen again.
“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,” wrote AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser. “The FBI may have intended this false story as a trap for only one person. However, the individual could easily have reposted this story to social networks, distributing to thousands of people, under our name, what was essentially a piece of government disinformation.”
CPJ has documented a number of incidents over the years in which law enforcement agents have posed as journalists, including in two separate hostage situations in 2000 in Newark, New Jersey, and in Luxembourg. Newark. In 2013, CPJ condemned Belgian security agents’ posing as documentary filmmakers in order to arrest two Somali pirates.
This is not the first time the AP has figured prominently in criminal investigations in recent years. In May 2013, the Justice Department revealed it had secretly subpoenaed the phone records of nearly two dozen AP telephone lines as part of a leak investigation. The move was widely condemned and led the DOJ to draft new guidelines on the use of subpoenas of the media.