FBI restricts impersonation of journalists

FBI restricts impersonation of journalists
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The FBI is imposing new restrictions making it more difficult for investigators to impersonate journalists, following scrutiny over a 2007 episode in which the bureau posed as a reporter to track a suspected criminal.    

The FBI did not violate its internal policy during that controversial incident, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General claimed in a 30-page report.

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“In 2007, FBI policies did not prohibit the practice of agents impersonating journalists, nor was there any requirement that agents seek special approval to engage in such practice,” the watchdog concluded.

Yet this June, it implemented an interim policy barring impersonation of a journalist without approval from the FBI’s deputy director, the watchdog revealed. 

That move “is a significant and important improvement to FBI policies,” the inspector general’s office claimed.

The changes are the result of a 2007 incident when FBI investigators wrote a fake AP story and placed it on a website designed to mimic the Seattle Times in order to infect a suspect’s computer. A link to the story bearing the headline “Bomb threat at high school downplayed by local police department” was sent to the MySpace page of a student suspected of making multiple threats against the school and launching cyberattacks against its computer network.

In followup emails to the student, Charles Jenkins, an FBI investigator portrayed himself as an “AP staff publisher” in order to get Jenkins to click on the link and links to other photographs.   

The operation became public in 2014 and was immediately attacked by news organizations claiming that it eroded the public’s trust in journalists.   

FBI Director James Comey defended the operation but failed to quell the outrage from press advocates. 

“We cannot overstate how damaging it is for federal agents to pose as journalists," Katie Townsend, the litigation director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said last year, while filing a lawsuit to obtain documents about the operation.

“This practice undermines the credibility of the independent news media, and should not be tolerated.”

The inspector general on Thursday urged the FBI to make its new interim policy permanent, among other steps.

An FBI spokesman said that it was doing just that.

"The FBI is acting on the [Office of the Inspector General]’s recommendation to update the undercover policy guide and is educating employees on its use and application," Matthew Betron said in a statement.

That new policy would have forbidden any operation of the type launched in 2007.

“We believe the June 2016 policy on FBI employees posing as members of the news media is a significant and important improvement to FBI policies that existed in 2007,” the inspector’s general office claimed.

Still, the AP said that it was "deeply disappointed" by the watchdog's findings, "which effectively condone the FBI’s impersonation of an AP journalist in 2007."

"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," Paul Colford, the vice president and director of media relations, said in a statement.

 

- Last updated on Sept. 16 at 9:18 a.m.