The Associated Press called on the U.S. Department of Justice Monday to guarantee that FBI agents be prohibited from masquerading as journalists when carrying out an investigation. The demand follows an admission from FBI Director James Comey that the bureau impersonates journalists “in very rare circumstances,” as it did when investigating a bomb threat suspect in 2007.
Gary Pruitt, the president and CEO of the AP, wrote a letter to Comey and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in response to Comey’s admission in a New York Times editorial last week that an FBI agent did claim to be an AP reporter while investigating a 15 year old suspected of making bomb threats on his high school. The agent asked the young man, who was later convicted, to review a falsified AP story and ask whether all the facts were correct.
The FBI’s actions were uncovered by Christopher Soghoian, an American Civil Liberties Union security researcher, who found out that the FBI had sent the suspect an email containing malicious software that, once downloaded, made it possible for the FBI to monitor his computer.
“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 Monday, as quoted by the AP. “This deception corrodes the most fundamental tenet of a free press – our independence from government control and corollary responsibility to hold government accountable.”
In his Times op-ed Comey maintained that the “unusual” method of investigation was lawful in 2007 “and, in a rare case, appropriate” in 2014 while adding that doing so again would “probably require higher-level approvals than in 2007.”
Pruitt said Comey’s remarks provided “no comfort” and called the tactic “yet another example of the Department of Justice overreaching” against the media. Pruitt’s complaints echo those made nearly two weeks ago by AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser. Kaiser, in a similar letter to Holder, demanded a list chronicling each time an FBI agent posed as a member of the media.
“The FBI both misappropriated the trusted named of the Associated Press and created a situation where our credibility could have been undermined on a large scale,” she wrote. “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.”