In 2007, an FBI agent impersonated an Associated Press journalist in order to deliver malware to a criminal suspect and find out his location. According to a newly published report from the Department of Justice, the operation was in line with the FBI's undercover policies at the time.
Journalistic organisations had expressed concern that the tactic could undermine reporters' and media institutions' credibility.
"We concluded that FBI policies in 2007 did not expressly address the tactic of agents impersonating journalists," the report from the Office of the Inspector General reads.
The case concerned a Seattle teenager suspected of sending bomb threats against a local school. FBI Special Agent Mason Grant got in touch with the teen over email, pretending to be an AP journalist. After some back and forth, Grant sent the suspect a fake article which, when clicked, grabbed his real IP address. Armed with this information, the FBI identified and arrested the suspect.
The Associated Press, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and other journalistic organisations condemned the move.
They pointed out that an FBI agent posing as a reporter could create distrust between legitimate journalists and sources, and also raised issues with the way the malware was distributed through a fake news story.
"The FBI may have intended this false story as a trap for only one person. However, the individual could easily have reposted this story to social networks, distributing to thousands of people, under our name, what was essentially a piece of government disinformation," AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser said when the investigation was revealed in 2014.
The new Department of Justice report noted that, today, this activity would require greater authorisation, under an interim policy on impersonating members of the media that was adopted by the FBI this June.
Now, for the agency to pretend to be a journalist as part of an undercover operation, an application must be made by the head of an FBI field office to the agency's main headquarters, reviewed by the Undercover Review Committee, and then approved by the deputy director, after discussion with the deputy attorney general.
"The FBI should move expeditiously to update its undercover policy guide to incorporate this new interim policy, and widely inform and educate FBI employees about the policy's existence and application," the report recommends. The FBI, according to the report, concurs.
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