The FBI has drawn strong criticism from the Associated Press and the Seattle Times after it was revealed that the government agency, trying to locate a suspect, crafted and published a false AP article.
The incident occurred in 2007, but documents relating to the FBI’s spoofed article were made public by American Civil Liberties Union technologist Christopher Soghoian on Twitter earlier this week.
The FBI, looking to locate a 15-year-old student suspected of making several bomb threats, designed a fake AP article about high school bomb threats hoping to attract the attention of the suspect. The agency made the article look similar to a genuine Seattle Times story containing an Associated Press byline. The article was sent to the juvenile’s MySpace account, and the FBI planted malware within the link exposing the suspect’s whereabouts upon clicking on it.
The Associated Press stated its disapproval of the FBI using the news agency’s name. “We are extremely concerned and find it unacceptable that the FBI misappropriated the name of The Associated Press and published a false story attributed to AP,” said AP’s media relations director Paul Colford. “This ploy violated AP’s name and undermined AP’s credibility.”
A Seattle Times editorial expressed the newspaper’s frustration toward the FBI for using news agencies in the media to publish false information. “The laudable end — conviction of a student making school bomb threats- does not justify the government’s outrageous disregard of the role of the press in a free society. In fact, it utterly undermines that role at a time when media companies are struggling to remain strong in the face of government abuses over the last two presidential administrations.”
“The credibility of the press matters now more than ever. This 2007 investigation occurred under President George W. Bush’s administration, but the Obama administration is racking up an unprecedented record of hostility toward the press, open government and transparency. That ranges from limiting press access of White House photographers to seizing AP phone records to threatening to send a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter to prison for protecting a source,” the editorial read. “The FBI’s actions in this case undermined the credibility of press organizations who hold government accountable — and that matters.”
Judge Andrew Napolitano, speaking on Fox News, said that the FBI violated trademark ad copyright law in its actions. “Here’s the basic rule of law. The government, when it’s investigating a crime, can lie, cheat, commit fraud, even commit assaults, even steal, in order to catch a defendant. But it can only do those things to the defendant it’s trying to catch. It can’t do it to a third party, entirely innocent in this,” Napolitano said.
The FBI confirmed that the agency published a fake Associated Press article, but denied using the Seattle Times’ likeness to do so. Special Agent in Charge Frank Montoya Jr. said that “at no time … did we reference The Seattle Times or provide any connection” to the newspaper. FBI documents showed a reference to using an “email link in the style of The Seattle Times” in its correspondence. Montoya said that using the Seattle Times’ name was only a “suggestion.’’