The FBI is facing fresh criticism after Director James Comey admitted Thursday that, in 2007, an agent impersonated an Associated Press reporter as part of a covert investigation.
The new information, exposed in a letter from Comey to the New York Times, adds to revelations from late last month that the agency falsified an Associated Press story as part of an effort to locate a 15-year-old suspected of making bomb threats that resulted in evacuations in June 2007 at Timberline High School in Lacey, Washington. Internal communications suggest that the spoof story may have been designed "in the style of The Seattle Times."
Before Thursday, the FBI had not acknowledged that it went so far as to impersonate a journalist.
According to Comey, "the online undercover officer portrayed himself as an employee of The Associated Press, and 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."
"The suspect agreed and clicked on a link relating to the draft 'story,' which then deployed court-authorized tools to find him, and the case was solved," he continued, referring to software that was used to track the teenager's location.
Comey defended the FBI's actions. "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," he wrote.
But Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP, said the false representation was "unacceptable."
"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," she said in a statement.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Comey, 25 news organizations—including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The New York Times Company, and The Washington Post—expressed "deep concern" and requested full disclosure of all facts relating to the incident.
The falsification was first revealed in late October by Chris Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union, who consulted documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation three years ago through a Freedom of Information Act Request.
However, key details remain unclear, the 25 news organizations point out, including the extent to which the Bureau mimicked the Seattle Times. The letter questions whether the FBI adhered to its own guidelines or fully informed the judge who signed the warrant that the software "impersonated a media organization or that there were First Amendment concerns at stake."
"The utilization of news media as a cover for delivery of electronic surveillance software is unacceptable," states the 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. It lends itself to the appearance that media organizations are compelled to speak on behalf of the government."
"We therefore urge the Attorney General and FBI to clarify that impersonation of the media is unacceptable, whether it is digital or physical, and whether it is of the individual or of an organization."