The Associated Press sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday asking him to provide details on every time the Justice Department posed as a media organization to conduct an investigation. The note, inspired by the news that the FBI posed as the AP in 2007, was sent on the same day that Sen. Patrick Leahy, one of the most prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill, sent another letter to Holder asking for more information about the investigation.
After reviewing the relevant documents, an FBI spokesman told the Seattle Times that using the newspaper's format was only a suggestion. Agents sought to send an “email link in the style of the Seattle Times” with a headline “Technology savvy student holds Timberline High School hostage,” though the email that was actually sent appeared to be from the AP. By clicking on the link, the suspect unwittingly provided investigators with a window into his computer.
“We're pleased to hear the FBI did not use the Seattle Times to further its investigation,” editor Kathy Best told reporters from her newspaper. “But we wish we had gotten that definitive 'no' from the FBI - - instead of a defense of the tactic - - Monday after providing the agency with internal documents showing a mocked-up phony Seattle Times email and Web page.”
An FBI spokesman defended the tactic during an interview with Seattle's Stranger newspaper earlier this week, saying it was only used in “very rare circumstances.” The bureau maintained that it had acted under the terms of a federal search warrant, and has since said the URL in question actually appeared to link to an AP story, not a Seattle Times article.
That wasn't enough to calm AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser, who demanded that the Justice Department never impersonate the news organization.
“The FBI both misappropriated the trusted name 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.”
Sen. Leahy, president pro tempore of the Senate, also wrote to Holder seeking clarification on what exactly the FBI did. The letters follow days of questions about whether the technique undermines reader trust in the media, as well as a prediction from Christopher Soghoian, the security researcher, that lawmakers would soon become involved.
“When law enforcement appropriates the identity of legitimate media institutions, it not only raises questions of copyright and trademark infringement but potentially undermines the integrity and credibility of an independent press,” Leahy wrote.
I give it two weeks, tops, before a Member of Congress writes a letter to the FBI demanding answers re: the Seattle Times impersonation.
â€” Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) October 28, 2014