FBI agent impersonated AP reporter in criminal investigation

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Documents that revealed the FBI used a fake news story, supposedly from the Associated Press, to trap a bomb threat suspect surfaced last week. However, that wasn’t the worst of it.

The organization also impersonated an AP reporter to catch the 15-year-old suspect in the 2007 case.

The guise was adopted after a series of bomb threats and cyber attacks directed toward a Seattle-area high school. The suspect ended up being arrested.

In a letter to The New York Times, Director James Comey said an agent “portrayed himself as an employee of The Associated Press and asked if the suspect would be willing to review a draft article about the threats and attacks, to be sure that the anonymous suspect was portrayed fairly.”

A link to a software tool that verifies Internet addresses was embedded in the bogus article. The suspect revealed his computer’s location and IP address when he clicked the link, helping agents confirm his identity.

Comey said the “technique was proper and appropriate” at the time, but admitted it would most likely require more approvals now than it did in 2007.

“Every undercover investigation involves ‘deception,’ which has long been a critical tool in fighting crime,” he said.

The issue at hand is not the FBI’s toolkit of deceptive practices. Rather, it’s about the important distinction between the press and the government, and the violation of that distinction.

In a letter to Comey and Attorney General Eric Holder, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said the impersonation was “unacceptable” because it threatens journalists’ ability to independently report on the news.

The letter also stated “the practice “endangers the media’s credibility and creates the appearance that [the media] is not independent of the government.”

An AP blog post said the organization was “outraged” by the impersonation and echoed those concerns. AP’s senior vice president and executive editor, Kathleen Carroll, said the following:

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.

What do you think, Ragan readers? Does this do any lasting damage to the FBI’s reputation? Will it make it harder for everyone, PR pros included, to trust those identifying themselves as reporters?

Beki Winchel is co-editor of PR Daily. 

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