An undercover FBI agent who impersonated a journalist to find out who was making bomb threats to a high school near Seattle did not violate federal policy at the time, a Justice Department watchdog says. Since the 2007 incident, the policy has been stiffened but could still allow such a ploy.
The impersonation came about after police in Washington state couldn't identify a suspect who repeatedly sent threatening emails to Timberline High School. After police asked a cybercrime task force for help, FBI agents posing as an Associated Press editor used spyware to snare what turned out to be a 15-year-old student at the school.
The AP said Thursday it's "deeply disappointed" with the Justice Department report's conclusions.
NPR's Carrie Johnson reports for our Newscast unit:
"Federal agents decided to go online to crack the case. They posed as journalists for Associated Press and sent the anonymous suspect a fake news article and photographs, luring him to click on them.
"When the AP and free press groups learned about the deception years later, they protested to the FBI and the Justice Department. The department's inspector general now says the ruse did not violate policies in place at the time at the FBI."
Carrie adds that the FBI's new safeguards now require higher-ups at the bureau and the Justice Department to approve an operation in which agents plan to impersonate journalists.
At least a portion of those safeguards were put in place very recently. According to the inspector general's office, it wasn't until the office was finalizing its report in June of 2016 — nine years after the investigation — that "the FBI adopted a much more strict interim policy that makes it clear that FBI agents are prohibited from impersonating journalists unless they obtain a series of special approvals."
In the Seattle case, the high school student had used several Gmail accounts to send taunting and threatening emails to the school's principal and other staff. He eventually pleaded guilty in juvenile court and was expelled. He had been routing his emails through a proxy, using servers in Italy and the Czech Republic — one of the email accounts had the address email@example.com.
In an interesting wrinkle, the use of proxies in this case is continuing: The inspector general's report does not identify any of the major players in the case. Instead, pseudonyms are used to refer to five federal agents and one assistant U.S. attorney, as well as to the high school perpetrator.
The Seattle case attracted attention in 2014, after a mention of it was found in federal documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As the Two-Way reported in 2014, the AP protested that the operation was an unacceptable appropriation. In August 2015, the news service filed a lawsuit over the use of its name.
Today, the AP issued a statement about the report's findings. From Paul Colford, vice president and director of media relations:
"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."