FBI tightens its policies for impersonating journalists

The FBI had impersonated an Associated Press journalist to send a bogus news article that was booby-trapped with surveillance software

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The FBI has imposed new restrictions on its agents’ ability to masquerade as reporters following an uproar over the impersonation of an Associated Press journalist, but the agency has stopped short of ruling out the practice as news organizations had wanted.

An inspector general report released Thursday said the FBI recently instituted new policies requiring top-level approval before agents can pose as journalists, calling the changes an “important improvement” over past practices. But it also said the impersonation was permissible under policies in place at the time and suggested that there may still be undercover operations in which the tactic could be appropriate to use.

The AP and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sued the FBI last year after it emerged that the bureau had impersonated an AP journalist to send a bogus news article that was booby-trapped with surveillance software. The ruse, in 2007, resulted in the trial and conviction of a teenage bomb hoaxer in Washington State.

A 2014 news article in the Seattle Times, based on records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, exposed details about the undercover operation. The impersonation stirred immediate outrage among the news media and First Amendment advocates, and the Justice Department’s inspector general opened an investigation into the practice.

In a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, the AP called it “improper and inconsistent with a free press for government personnel to masquerade as The Associated Press or any other news organization.” The AP argued such impersonations by law enforcement would intimidate sources who might otherwise speak freely to journalists and erode the AP’s ability to gather news.

FBI Director James Comey defended the tactic in a 2014 New York Times opinion piece as “proper and appropriate,” and said that while it would still be permissible today, it would likely need additional levels of approval.

The inspector general looked into whether the tactic was appropriate under policies in place at the time and whether it would require higher levels of approval if conducted today.