A federal appeals court reinstated a claim by a reporters’ advocacy group that the FBI failed to conduct an adequate search for records related to agents posing as journalists. The court sent the FBI back to look again.
In 2015, it was learned the FBI impersonated an AP reporter as an undercover tactic during a 2007 investigation and the Reporters Committee and AP filed a lawsuit against the FBI and Department of Justice for force them to release records regarding the FBI practice.
After the FBI turned over several pertinent records the district judge dismissed the case and the committee and AP appealed saying the FBI search was inadequate.
The case stems from a 2007 Seattle-area case in which Timberline High School began receiving anonymous bomb threats, prompting daily evacuations. FBI cybercrime experts were called to help trace the emailed threats. The FBI plan was the flatter the narcissistic culprit into clicking a link to what looked like press coverage suggesting he had outsmarted authorities. Once he clicked the link the agents would secretly deliver special malware that would reveal the computer’s location.
FBI, with a warrant, contacted an anonymous social media account associated with the threats. The agent identified himself as an Associated Press “staff publisher” and requested input for the draft article through an email link. The suspect took the bait, clicked the link and unwittingly downloaded the malware, according to the court.
The FBI arrested the suspect without hours.
“This decision is a significant victory in oour effort to help reporters and the public better understand law enforcement practices for impersonating the news media,” said Katie Townsend, lawyer for the Reporters Committee. “These practices undermine the media’s credibility and could make sources wary of trusting journalists in the future,” she said.
Seven years later in 2014, the ACLU spotted a reference to the ruse and tweeted about it, which drew national headlines, pointing out the tactic undermines media credibility and endangers reporters. Then FBI director James Comey wrote a letter to the New York Times justifying the tactics.
The AP and Reporters Committee filed suit in 2015.
In 2017, the committee filed a second suit after it discovered the FBI also impersonated documentary filmmakers in a separate investigation.
Case: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press v. FBI, No. 17-5042