FBI’s im­per­son­ation of jour­nal­ists is chill­ing

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.

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE -

Agents are free to im­per­son­ate jour­nal­ists, ac­cord­ing to the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s Of­fice of the In­spec­tor Gen­eral.

That of­fice 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. -- Los An­ge­les Daily News,

Dig­i­tal First Me­dia

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.

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