OPINION: FBI blurs lines between press and law enforcement


Alex Weidner, Opinion Editor

Back in 2007, the FBI assigned agents to investigate a teenager for sending bomb threats to a Seattle high school. One undercover agent posed as a member of the Associated Press.

While members of the press are unhappy with the FBI agent who pretended to be from the press, the Justice Department ruled that the agent’s methods were entirely within agency policy.

According to a report published by the Justice Department earlier this month, a team of agents on the investigation developed a plan to get a program onto the teenage suspect’s computer to track his location.

One agent posed as an Associated Press editor and contacted the suspect. The tracking program was embedded into links the agent sent, which were disguised as fake AP news stories. The suspect was tricked into allowing the program access to his computer by clicking these links during his email correspondence with the agent.

The report found that the agent in question did not violate any standing FBI policies.

Some critics pointed out that the FBI agent did not follow proper AP guidelines in the fake articles.

While the press is often referred to as the “Fourth Estate” of government, having a government worker impersonate a member of the press in order to catch a suspect is, at face value, a serious ethical dilemma.

The AP is understandably not happy with the Justice Department report.

The fact that a government employee can impersonate a member of the press, a group that is generally tasked with keeping an eye on the government, is an absurd breach of trust.

The American public should be able to trust the press. The press exists to inform the people, and while there is more to news than just politics, the press has a history of keeping the public informed on what the government is doing. The FBI has abused the trust between the public and the press in order to further its own interests.

Furthermore, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights grants freedom of the press, and that no law will be made infringing on that freedom. The FBI agent’s actions abused this freedom.

By pretending to be a member of the press for to further government interests, the FBI used a right that is granted to private citizens for government benefit.

As a member of a press organization that adheres to standard journalistic ethics as well as AP style, it’s impossible to justify the FBI’s actions during the initial 2007 investigation, and deeply troubling to see that the Justice Department finds no issue with the methods used in the investigation.

The Society of Professional Journalists has an ethics code that many journalists follow, including those here at The Wood Word.

One point of the SPJ code of ethics is to “minimize harm,” which the FBI did not do.

The FBI is not a journalistic body, and does not follow the SPJ code.

However, for them to pretend to be a journalist and not follow the ethics code that most journalists do means they did a pretty bad job of pretending to be journalists. This, for the most part, just shows that they did a poor job in their undercover investigation. But it’s also disrespectful to journalists who follow the code of ethics.

In terms of minimizing harm, the suspect in the investigation is a victim of entrapment. The FBI agent pretended to be a journalist in order to gain access to the teenager’s computer via the hacked email link.

Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” used fake chat profiles to lure sexual predators. The SPJ did a case study on the ethical standings of NBC’s show, which is similar to what the FBI did.

The ethical choice? “Let law enforcement conduct sting operations and the media report on the arrests.” This implies that in keeping with proper journalistic ethics, the roles of journalist and law enforcement should not be crossed in these sorts of investigations.

The FBI used the role of the press in order to further the investigation, at least momentarily blurring the lines between law enforcement and press.
The FBI has done nothing in regards to the agent in question, and only made minimal changes to its policy; agents will now need more agency approval to pose as journalists during investigations.

What the FBI should have done was ban the practice entirely. The press as a whole needs to feel confident that their authority and trust will not be abused by the government, and the results of this case do little to make that so.

With constitutional freedoms and journalistic ethics in question, the FBI needs to seriously rethink its policies regarding agents posing as journalists, for the sake of journalists everywhere.

Contact the writer: [email protected]

Twitter: @WeidnerTWW