By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
Last week, the Office of the Inspector General at the Justice Department said the FBI’s impersonation of an Associated Press journalist was acceptable in its efforts to obtain information nine years ago about a bomb threat case.
In its report, the I-G said, “We found that Department and FBI policies in effect in 2007 did not prohibit agents from impersonating journalists or from posing as a member of a news organization, nor was there any requirement that agents seek special approval to engage in such undercover activities.”
The outcry by the AP and the journalism community over such tactics is what led to the scrutiny in the first place. Here’s what happened:
Charles Jenkins was a 15-year old high school student at the time who had emailed bomb threats to his high school using an overseas server to conceal his real location. When local law enforcement officials couldn’t locate him, they asked the FBI for help.
According to the watchdog’s report: "FBI agents developed a plan to surreptitiously insert a computer program into Jenkins’s computer that would identify his true location. An FBI undercover agent posed as an editor for the Associated Press (AP) and contacted Jenkins through e-mail. During subsequent online communications, the undercover agent sent Jenkins links to a fake news article and photographs that had the computer program embedded within them. Jenkins activated the computer program when he clicked on the link to the photographs, thereby revealing Jenkins’s true location to the FBI.”
The FBI kept its tactics secret until they were uncovered through an FOIA request by a Seattle newspaper. Once it became public, the AP and other news organizations protested to then Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey. Comey called the bureau’s actions “proper and appropriate.”
RTDNA couldn’t disagree more with that assessment.
In the intervening years, some policies have been changed slightly to require a bit more oversight to the use of these kinds of tactics but the bottom line is that the FBI can still impersonate a journalist or pretty much whomever they like if they feel it will aid their investigations.
While we understand the need for vigorous and effective law enforcement, tactics like impersonating a journalist raise very serious concerns about damage to one of the basic precepts of good journalism and the free flow of information. That precept is trust.
Those to whom we speak in pursuit of the news MUST be able to trust that we are who we say we are and that we will work diligently to insure their information and their identities are protected, if need be. If someone isn’t sure whether he’s speaking with a reporter—or a law enforcement officer—that trust is shattered and efforts to get at the truth can be destroyed.
In the strongest possible way, RTDNA urges the FBI and other law enforcement agencies using similar tactics to seriously consider the damage this does to a free media and the people’s absolute right to trust the journalists who work very hard every day at insuring they can. Perhaps there should be a law!