FBI agents are free to impersonate journalists, according to the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, the supposed watchdog agency for the department, which also concluded that a 2007 incident in which an agent impersonated an Associated Press reporter did not violate agency policies. This practice sets a dangerous precedent that threatens the credibility — and, potentially, the lives — of legitimate journalists.
"Such a policy can seriously damage both the public's trust in its free press and the ability of journalists to hold government accountable," David Boardman, chairman of the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement. "We urge the Justice Department to take seriously the need for reform and the importance of protecting the integrity of the newsgathering process."
The Associated Press also noted its dissatisfaction. "Such action compromises the ability of a free press to gather the news safely and effectively and raises serious constitutional concerns," AP Vice President Paul Colford said in a press release.
In the June 2007 case, the FBI was called in by local law enforcement investigating a series of bomb threats sent by email to Timberline High School outside of Seattle. The perpetrator, later discovered to be a 15-year-old student, had hidden his location by using proxy servers, so the FBI posed as an AP editor and contacted him by email. The agent then sent him fake news stories and photographs containing a trace program, which ultimately revealed the culprit's location when he clicked on one of the photos.
This only came to light seven years later, following a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Freedom Foundation. In June, the FBI adopted a new interim impersonation policy, under which agents must first receive the approval of two high-ranking officials and an undercover review committee, but somehow it comes as little comfort that the only restriction on such a practice is that the government must first give itself permission.
"We do use deception at times to catch crooks, but we are acting responsibly and legally," FBI Director James Comey wrote in a November 2014 letter to the editor of the New York Times. We can't help but wonder if he would have the same attitude if journalists were to impersonate FBI agents to try to root out government corruption or uncover other information that might be in the public interest.
In an age where public trust in the media is already strained, the FBI's impersonation of journalists and use of fake news stories only further undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the press. It also makes it more likely that journalists reporting from dangerous areas like war-torn or despotic nations will be harassed or imprisoned based on suspicions that they are actually government agents or infiltrators. Finally, such a practice will discourage whistleblowers, who now have to fear that their media contact may actually be a federal agent.
Such tactics are chilling to the media, which are charged with exposing malfeasance in government, and have no place in a free society.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER