Investigation clears FBI in impersonating journalist

There’s nothing wrong with an FBI agent posing as a journalist for the Associated Press, according to the United States Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

It concludes an investigation into a 2007 scheme by the FBI to deliver malware to a Seattle teenager suspected of sending bomb threats to a local school.

The FBI agent posed as an Associated Press reporter and created a fake Seattle Times website in order to communicate with the kid by email. The software grabbed the teen’s internet protocol address and with that, the FBI figured out who he was.

The scheme wasn’t revealed until 2014, however, which angered the Associated Press and other journalist organizations. If people think they’re talking to the feds when approached by a journalist, it compromises their independence and integrity, they said.

“Not only does that cross a line, it erases it,” Seattle Times Editor Kathy Best said when the ruse was revealed.

Today’s report said the impersonation would require approval at higher levels of the Justice Department under present policies, but not back then.

After reviewing a draft of this report, the FBI provided comments explaining that the heightened level of review and approval required for FBI employees to pose as members of the news media was introduced because such activity potentially could “impair newsgathering activities” under the First Amendment, but that such constitutional considerations do not apply to businesses and other third parties.

Our recommendation, however, does not rely on equating the reputational interests of some third party organizations and businesses with the constitutional interests of others.

We believe that reputational interests, and the potential impact FBI investigations can have on those interests, are themselves sufficiently important to merit some level of review before FBI employees use the names of third party organizations or businesses without their knowledge or consent.

In a statement today, the Associated Press rejected the conclusion offered by the inspector general report.

The Associated Press is deeply disappointed by the inspector general’s findings, which effectively condone the FBI’s impersonation of an AP journalist in 2007.

Such action compromises the ability of a free press to gather the news safely and effectively and raises serious constitutional concerns.

Once again AP calls on the government to refrain from any activities involving the impersonation of the news media and we demand to be heard in the development of any policies addressing such conduct.