In the summer of 2007, police in Thurston County, Washington contacted the FBI after a local high school received a series of anonymous bomb threats.
To catch the culprit, the FBI decided to create a fake news article about the bomb threats. The article was made to look like it came from The Seattle Times and was even given a byline crediting the story to the Associated Press.
An FBI agent then used a fake email account to send the fake article to a MySpace account belonging to the primary suspect. When the suspect clicked the link, FBI malware hidden in the article relayed his IP address and location to FBI agents. The culprit turned out to be a 15-year-old student — he was given 90 days probation and an $8,852 fine for making the threats.
The story might have ended there, if it weren’t for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 2011.
Ironically, the FOIA request was actually in regards to another matter that the EFF was looking into at the time. As a result, news of the FBI’s fake article wasn’t made public until 2014, when ACLU privacy researcher Chris Soghoian came across evidence of the operation in the documents provided by the FBI.
“I remember reading about it at the time and wondering, ‘How do they get people to click on their stupid links?'” Soghoian said an interview with The Stranger after making the discovery.
As you might imagine, the Associated Press was not at all happy when they found out that the FBI was using their name on fake articles. In a letter sent to former Attorney General Eric Holder last year, AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser wrote,
“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.
The Seattle Times was equally upset about the operation. In a prepared statement, Seattle Times editor Kathy Best said,
“We are outraged that the FBI, with the apparent assistance of the US Attorney’s Office, misappropriated the name of The Seattle Times to secretly install spyware on the computer of a crime suspect. Not only does that cross a line, it erases it.”
The FBI, for its part, has continually defended the operation since it became known to the public. “We do use deception at times to catch crooks, but we are acting responsibly and legally,” FBI Director James Comey wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. In the piece, Comey also admitted that an agent had impersonated an AP journalist during the operation.
In response to the revelation, the AP filed an FOIA request asking that the FBI hand over all information regarding its use of fake news stories since 2000.
The FBI attempted to block the request, claiming that gathering this information could take upwards of two years, so the AP decided to take it a step further: on Thursday morning, they filed a lawsuit demanding that the FBI hand over the information in question.
In the lawsuit, which was filed in conjunction with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), the AP accuses the FBI of failing to respond to its FOIA request as is mandated by law. The suit also points out that the original request has been pending for nearly 300 days now.
In a press release announcing the lawsuit, RCFP Litigation Director Katie Townsend writes,
“We cannot overstate how damaging it is for federal agents to pose as journalists. This practice undermines the credibility of the independent news media, and should not be tolerated.”