By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but that depends on who’s doing the imitating and why.
Consider, for example, the strangely bizarre case of the FBI agent who decided one spring day in 2007 to pose as a reporter for the Associated Press.
To lure a 10th grade Washington high school student suspected of sending bomb threats by email, the FBI agent sent the student a fake AP story with built-in tracking software. The student was caught and arrested when he opened the bogus email.
In a letter published in the New York Times on Nov. 6, FBI director, James B. Comey, seemed to suggest that AP should be flattered that his agency chose to use the venerable news service as part of a government sting.
Comey wrote that the techniques used to catch the student were “proper and appropriate” under guidelines existing at the time. Comey went on to say that today the use of such deception would require a higher level of approval but would still be “lawful and appropriate.”
But that doesn’t make it right.
For the FBI, an agency charged with protecting and defending the American public, to think it’s perfectly fine to use a member of the nation’s fourth estate to do its dirty work is indefensible no matter how just or noble the cause. And if the FBI thinks AP should be flattered that it was wrongfully misused, it’s sorely mistaken.
“Freedom of the press means independence at all times from government intrusion,” The Newspaper Guild-CWA, which represents AP staffers, said in a statement.
“Journalists earn the public’s trust by serving as a community’s eyes and ears, as watchdogs who can be relied on to expose government wrongdoing,” the Guild said. “Any hint that a journalist or news organization is aiding law enforcement damages their reputation as an objective, trustworthy source of news.”
In addition to the Guild, news of the FBI operation and Comey’s defense of the practice caused a furor at AP, other media organizations and civil liberty groups across the country. Various news organizations have written letters to the FBI director in protest, and newspapers have editorialized against the agency’s behavior.
Critics point out that the FBI has countless investigative tools and techniques at its disposal to catch criminals. While the agency was clearly right to investigate the threat, it didn’t need to betray the media to do so.
According to media reports, the FBI considered being even more deceptive. When the story was first reported last month in The Seattle Times, it was believed that the FBI had placed the fake AP story on a phony Seattle Times website. The FBI denied that, saying it had only been a “suggestion” while planning the sting.
The case goes back to the spring of 2007, when Timberlake High School in Lacey, Wash., received bomb threats by email, on paper and on a bathroom wall, causing the school to be evacuated.
Local police were struggling to identify the source of the threats and asked the FBI’s field office in Seattle for help.
The bureau obtained a court warrant to carry out the sting but apparently did not tell the judge it would use a fake news report from AP as part of the operation.
According to documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public interest group, a special agent in Seattle working with FBI behavioral scientists caught the young man by emailing him the fake news story.
“We do use deception at times to catch crooks, but we are acting responsibly and legally,” Comey wrote in his letter to the Times.
But the FBI’s by any means necessary approach fails to take into consideration the harm such deceptive practices might have on reporters trying to do their jobs and win the public’s confidence and trust. The FBI never considered the potential damage to the credibility of AP or that it might undermine all reporters seeking information from sources.
“The agent knew that The AP was a credible organization, or he would not have said ‘I am a reporter for the AP,” Kathleen Carroll, the AP’s executive editor, said in an interview. “And by using that credibility, he tarnished it.”
Just because government has the right to do what it deems in the public interest doesn’t give it carte blanche to recklessly infringe on First Amendment rights in the process.
Cases like this hurt journalists’ credibility and undermine the public’s trust in government.
Comey said that “only the suspect was fooled.”
That matters little in the scheme of things.
The nation, as a whole, was fooled by the FBI, which wouldn’t have come clean about the operation were it not the diligent efforts of public interest groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. After all, who among us, truly believes that the FBI won’t resort to such tactics in the future unless it is compelled by higher authorities or public pressure not to do so.