The FBI's Impersonation of an AP Editor

Jose Luis Magana/AP

The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General says no rules were violated when an FBI agent posed as an editor for The Associated Press in 2007 while investigating bomb threats near Seattle.

In a report released Thursday, the watchdog said:

We found that Department and FBI policies in effect in 2007 did not prohibit agents from impersonating journalists or from posing as a member of a news organization, nor was there any requirement that agents seek special approval to engage in such undercover activities.

Here’s the background to the story: In June 2007, Charles Jenkins, a 15-year-old high school student, emailed a series of bomb threats over the course of a week to school administrators that resulted in the closure of Timberline High School. In order to conceal his location, he used a proxy server located in Europe. Local law enforcement sought the FBI’s help. Here’s what the FBI’s field office in Seattle did next, according to the report:

FBI agents developed a plan to surreptitiously insert a computer program into Jenkins’s computer that would identify his true location. An FBI undercover agent posed as an editor for the Associated Press (AP) and contacted Jenkins through e-mail. During subsequent online communications, the undercover agent sent Jenkins links to a fake news article and photographs that had the computer program embedded within them. Jenkins activated the computer program when he clicked on the link to the photographs, thereby revealing Jenkins’s true location to the FBI.

Jenkins was subsequently arrested and expelled from school; he pleaded guilty and was sentenced in July 2007 to 90 days of juvenile detention, two years of supervised release, two years of mental health counseling, and two years of probation with restriction on internet and computer usage.

The FBI did not publicize its role in the investigation, but Wired, in July of that year, reported on the bureau’s actions. Seven years later, the Seattle Times reported on the content of the emails sent by the FBI—content that the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the bureau.

The AP and several news organizations protested to Eric Holder, the then attorney general. In a letter to Holder in 2014, the AP’s general counsel said the bureau “both misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press and created a situation where our credibility could have been undermined on a large scale.”

FBI Director James Comey, in a letter to The New York Times, defended the bureau’s actions, calling it “proper and appropriate” under the rules governing such actions at the time.  

Amid the scrutiny, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General began an investigation—the FBI falls within the department’s purview—and released its findings Thursday. The inspector general said there was no explicit policy that prohibited agents from pretending to be journalists.

The AP wasn’t pleased—even if other news organizations mocked the bureau’s attempts at journalism. Here’s its statement:

The Associated Press is deeply disappointed by the inspector general’s findings, which effectively condone the FBI’s impersonation of an AP journalist in 2007. Such action compromises the ability of a free press to gather the news safely and effectively and raises serious constitutional concerns.Once again AP calls on the government to refrain from any activities involving the impersonation of the news media and we demand to be heard in the development of any policies addressing such conduct.

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