FBI Revamps Policy for Posing as Journalists

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The FBI modified its policy on agents posing as journalists, nine years after it impersonated an Associated Press editor to catch a 15-year-old who sent bomb threats to a high school near Seattle.
     A report published Thursday by the Office of the Inspector General says the FBI’s policy during the 2007 investigation failed to provide clear guidelines on the tactic’s use, but that new restrictions — adopted by the FBI as the OIG’s report was being finalized – have been put in place to ensure it is only used when expressly authorized.
     In June 2007, Charles Jenkins emailed a bomb threat to teachers and administrators at Timberline High School in Lacy, Wash.
     Jenkins was caught after he opened a fake Seattle Times link provided by an assumed AP editor that contained spyware.
     The next month, Wired.com published an article detailing the FBI’s tactic, according to the OIG.
     The Seattle Times was apparently in the dark over the ruse, but published an article seven years later, in October 2014, disclosing the fact that the FBI posed a member of the media when it contacted Jenkins. That same month, the AP sent then-Attorney General Eric Holder a letter protesting the FBI’s methods.
     The Seattle Times Editor Kathy Best said she was “outraged.”
     “We, like you, just learned of this and are seeking answers ourselves from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office,” Best said in a 2014 statement. “But we are outraged that the FBI misappropriated the name of The Seattle Times to secretly install spyware on the computer of a crime suspect. Not only does that cross the line, it erases it.”
     The AP and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice in August 2015, claiming the FBI has illegally withheld information about the 2007 sting operation.
     The plaintiffs seek in part “an accounting of the number of times, between Jan.1, 2000 and Nov. 6, 2014, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has impersonated media organizations or generated media-style material … to deliver malicious software to suspects or anyone else caught up in an investigation,” according to an 18-page complaint.
     The FBI said completion time for the requests is 649 days. The case is still pending.
     Meanwhile, the OIG report outlined new procedures that restrict agents’ ability to pose as members of the media.
     “The new interim policy…clearly prohibits FBI employees from engaging in undercover activity in which they represent, pose, or claim to be members of the news media, unless the activity is authorized as part of an undercover operation,” the report states.
     It adds that an application to impersonate members of the media must be approved along the chain of command.
     “In order for such an operation to be authorized, an application must first be approved by the head of the FBI field office submitting the application to [FBI Headquarters, or FBIHQ], reviewed by the Undercover Review Committee at FBIHQ, and approved by the Deputy Director, after consultation with the Deputy Attorney General,” the report says.
     But Paul Colford, AP’s vice president and director of media relations, said in an AP report on Thursday that the OIG’s report would not prevent the impersonations.
     He said the news cooperative was “deeply disappointed with 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,” Colford said. “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.”

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