The Associated Press on Monday demanded assurances from the Justice Department that the FBI will never again impersonate a member of the news media, following revelations that an agent in Seattle portrayed himself as an AP journalist as part of a criminal investigation.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey, the president and CEO of the news cooperative, Gary Pruitt, also demanded to know who authorized the 2007 impersonation, what process was followed for its approval and whether such operations are still being carried out.
“Most importantly, we want assurances that this won’t happen again,” Pruitt wrote.
The administration didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Comey revealed in a New York Times op-ed column last week that an FBI agent had posed as an AP reporter to help catch a 15-year-old suspected of making bomb threats at a high school in Washington state. Comey said the agent posing as an AP reporter asked the suspect to review a fake AP article about threats and cyberattacks directed at the school to ensure that the suspect was portrayed fairly.
The bogus article contained a software tool that could verify Internet addresses. The suspect clicked on a link, revealing his computer’s location and Internet address, which helped agents confirm his identity.
The FBI director defended the “unusual technique” as legal under agency guidelines at the time, and still lawful “and, in a rare case, appropriate” today, although he said it would now “probably require higher-level approvals than in 2007.”
Pruitt said that assertion was of “no comfort” to the news media. AP’s “legacy of objectivity, truth, accuracy and integrity” has been degraded, he wrote.
“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,” he wrote. “This deception corrodes the most fundamental tenet of a free press — our independence from government control and corollary responsibility to hold government accountable.”
Pruitt called the 2007 case “yet another example of the Department of Justice overreaching,” citing also the secret seizing last year of phone records of AP reporters and editors during a national security leak investigation.
“That operation, like the impersonation disclosed last week by Director Comey, erodes our ability to gather news by intimidating sources who might otherwise speak freely with our journalists,” Pruitt wrote.