FBI director James Comey acknowledged that an FBI agent impersonated an Associated Press (AP) reporter during its investigation of a 15-year-old suspect.
Last week, news spread quickly that in 2007 the FBI had created a false AP article containing location-tracking software to lure a high school student suspected of making bomb threats into revealing his whereabouts. The Associated Press was publicly critical of the FBI’s actions and opined that the FBI was undermining AP’s reputation.
Comey, in a New York Times letter to the editor, admitted that an undercover FBI agent “portrayed himself as an employee of The Associated Press” after the agency concluded that the suspect was a narcissist. Following that determination, the agent contacted the teen online and asked him to review a “draft article” based upon the teen and the alleged bomb threats. The suspect complied and clicked on the link that contained the fake AP article which “deployed court-authorized tools” to locate the suspect.
“That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and F.B.I. guidelines at the time,” wrote Comey. “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.”
“Every undercover operation involves ‘deception,’ which has long been a critical tool in fighting crime,” Comey’s letter continued. “The F.B.I.’s use of such techniques is subject to close oversight, both internally and by the courts that review our work.”
AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll denounced the FBI’s impersonation tactics. “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,” said Carroll in a statement.
In a letter written to the Justice Department last week, the AP requested that the Justice Department disclose other incidents when it has impersonated a news agency during an investigation. The letter also asserted that “it’s never appropriate”for a government agency to impersonate a news organization and noted that “the FBI may have intended this false story as a trap for only one person. However, the individual could easily have reposted this story to social networks, distributing to thousands of people, under our name, what was essentially a piece of government disinformation.”