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FBI’s Trickery Undermines Public Trust in a Free Press

Larry Margasak
Former Associated Press reporter Larry Margasak examines how a ruse by the FBI harms the media’s role as a watchdog and could even jeopardize the safety of journalists.

It was April 2000. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were having their spring meetings in Washington, and the city was bracing for potentially violent protests.

I was one of the scores of reporters assigned to the story. In the days before the protests were to begin, I went to the demonstrators’ headquarters to learn about their plans. I always wore a laminated card, with my photo that identified me as a reporter with The Associated Press.

In a similar scenario today, the protesters might look at that ID card and suspect that I was an undercover agent for the FBI. And I can understand why.

In a letter to The New York Times on Nov. 6, 2014, FBI Director James B. Comey acknowledged that in 2007, an undercover agent investigating a bomb threat and cyberattack case had “portrayed himself as an employee of the Associated Press.”

As a result of the FBI’s tactic:

  • The nation’s chief law enforcement agency may have harmed the public’s trust in the news media.
  • The media’s role as a watchdog of government is corroded, because sources with knowledge of wrongdoing may not come forward.
  • Journalists covering terrorism and those on other dangerous assignments, where reporting is most needed, face an even greater risk to their safety.

Comey’s acknowledgment of the bureau’s trickery was bad enough. But it gets worse.

The FBI director didn’t conclude that the deception — which used a fake AP story and resulted in the arrest of a juvenile — was wrong. While acknowledging that the tactic might require a higher level of approval today, he noted that “it would still be lawful and, in a rare case, appropriate.”

In a letter to Comey and Attorney General Eric Holder demanding that such practices be prohibited, Gary Pruitt, the AP’s president and CEO, emphasized that the news service has always been known for “objectivity, truth, accuracy and integrity.”

“In stealing our identity, the FBI tarnishes that reputation, belittles the value of the free press rights enshrined in our Constitution and endangers AP journalists and other newsgatherers around the world,” Pruitt wrote.

In December, during a roundtable discussion with reporters, Comey indicated that his views hadn’t changed. Asked if the FBI would respond to the AP’s protest by halting such tactics, he replied: “I’m not willing to say ‘never’ — just as I wouldn’t say that we would never pose as an educator, or a doctor, or, I don’t know, a rocket scientist.”

Fake story

The deception came to light in a Seattle Times story published on Oct. 27, 2014. Reporter Mike Carter wrote that the FBI’s Seattle office created a fake news story on a bogus Seattle Times Web page as a means of planting software in the computer of a suspect in a series of bomb threats to a high school.

Carter reported that documents showed the FBI dummied up a story with an Associated Press byline about the bomb threats with an email link “in the style of The Seattle Times.” The link was sent to the suspect’s MySpace account; when the suspect clicked on it, hidden FBI software sent his location and Internet Protocol address to the agents.

The documents cited by Carter were obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, and the deception initially was publicized on Twitter by Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.

“We are outraged that the FBI, with the apparent assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, misappropriated the name of The Seattle Times to secretly install spyware on the computer of a crime suspect,” said Times editor Kathy Best.

“Not only does that cross a line, it erases it. Our reputation and our ability to do our job as a government watchdog are based on trust. Nothing is more fundamental to that trust than our independence — from law enforcement, from government, from corporations and from all other special interests. The FBI’s actions, taken without our knowledge, traded on our reputation and put it at peril.”

In any story that features confrontations and opposing views, readers deserve to hear both sides. That won’t happen if those on one side of an issue refuse to cooperate because they suspect someone with a reporter’s ID is really a government agent. But the consequences can be much worse than a loss of trust. The reporter’s life could be in danger if he’s working on a terrorism story and some of the bad guys suspect he’s either a U.S. government agent or a reporter doubling as a government agent.

The latter scenario isn’t hypothetical. It’s real.

CIA assignments

In 1976, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported that more than 50 U.S. journalists had worked secretly for the CIA during the Cold War. The next year, journalist Carl Bernstein, writing in Rolling Stone, said the problem was much worse: Documents on file at CIA headquarters showed that during the previous 25 years, more than 400 journalists had carried out assignments for the spy agency.

In the mid-1990s, then-AP President Louis Boccardi was among news executives trying to persuade the CIA to stop using journalists to get information. He cited the case of AP reporter Terry Anderson, who was based in the Middle East. Anderson was taken hostage in Lebanon in March 1985 by Hezbollah, which claimed — incorrectly — that he was gathering information for the CIA. He wasn’t released until December 1991.

Radicals, Anderson said, “believe all Americans are spies to begin with and particularly those who go around asking questions are spies. … One of the questions they asked me in my interrogation was who at the AP was my secret contact with the CIA, the assumption being that of course there was one.”

The circumstances of Anderson’s case are much different than an FBI agent posing as an AP reporter. But whether you look at the history of the CIA using journalists to gather information or today’s journalists under suspicion because of the FBI’s tactics, the common thread in dangerous assignments is that the reporter is not safe.

In a letter sent Nov. 6 to Holder and Comey, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 25 news organizations asked for disclosure of the facts surrounding the FBI’s utilization of the deceptive tactic.

It is not clear, they wrote, that the FBI notified key officials that the tool used to trace the suspect’s location involved a fake Associated Press article with an AP byline and the impersonation of a journalist. Among those who may not have been given that information: the Justice Department attorney who approved the affidavit to make the case for electronic surveillance, the magistrate judge who signed the warrant and the FBI’s counsel.

The groups noted that FBI guidelines on undercover investigations “restrict the circumstances under which FBI agents may impersonate the news media during the course of an investigation.”

Also, they wrote, the guidelines on domestic FBI operations emphasize the importance of protecting First Amendment rights from unnecessary intrusion. There is a complex set of approval and review requirements both for investigations and for submitting warrant applications when First Amendment concerns are involved.

“We are extremely concerned that the FBI seemingly failed to follow any of these procedures in the Associated Press/Seattle Times incident,” they said.

As of late December, the Justice Department had not replied to their letter.

Larry Margasak retired from the Associated Press in 2013 after a 47-year career with the news service, mostly in the Washington bureau, where he covered Congress and was a member of the investigative team.