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The FBI Defends Its Practice Of Impersonating Reporters

In 2007, an agent posed as an AP reporter to track down a suspect behind a bomb threat.

The FBI Defends Its Practice Of Impersonating Reporters
[Photo: Flickr user Roger H. Goun]

The director of the FBI defended the actions of an agent who impersonated an Associated Press reporter in 2007 to ensnare a suspect who allegedly made bomb threats and carried out cyberattacks on a Seattle area high school.

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In a letter to The New York Times, FBI director James Comey admitted the agency does “use deception at times to catch crooks,” but insisted it was done responsibly and legally.

The ruse worked as follows: The agent, under the guise of being part of the AP, “asked if the suspect would be willing to review a draft article about the threats and attacks, to be sure that the anonymous suspect was portrayed fairly,” according to the letter. The FBI tracked down and eventually arrested the suspect, after he clicked on a link to the purported article draft, which installed tracking software on the suspect’s computer.

The AP, though, is not happy with the FBI’s methodology. In a statement, executive editor Kathleen Carroll said the deception “undermine[d] the AP and the vital distinction between the government and the press.” While only the individual suspect saw the article draft, the AP said he easily could have shared it with others on then-nascent social media platforms.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent its own letter Thursday to Comey and Attorney General Eric Holder, calling the deception and the clandestine software installation “unacceptable.” The letter continues saying such practices call media credibility into question and also endangers the media’s independence from the government.

The AP has formally requested the Justice Department never misrepresent itself as the news agency in the future and to enact policy changes that would prevent it from impersonating other media outlets as well.

While not exactly acquiescing to the press’s demands, Comey said approval is required to use such a technique today, though he was careful not to give any specifics.

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