FBI Agents Posing as Journalists Is a Bad Idea

From a report by the FBI into its own undercover operations:

As described in our full report, we concluded that FBI policies in 2007 did not expressly address the tactic of agents impersonating journalists. We further found that the FBI’s undercover policies then in effect provided some relevant guidance, but were less than clear. As a result, we believe that the judgments agents made about aspects of the planned undercover activity in 2007 to pose as an editor for the AP did not violate the undercover policies in place at the time. We also determined that once the undercover plan was launched, certain investigative decisions were made concerning communications the undercover agent sent to the individual suspected of making the bomb threats that could have increased the level of approval required under FBI policy, a possibility the investigative team did not appear to fully consider.

As we were finalizing this report, the FBI adopted a new interim policy in June 2016 that provides guidance to FBI employees regarding their impersonation of members of the news media during undercover activity or an undercover operation (defined as a series of related undercover activities over a period of time). We found that prior to the adoption of this new interim policy, FBI policy would not have prohibited FBI employees from engaging in the undercover activities agents conducted during the 2007 Timberline investigation. The new interim policy, however, clearly prohibits FBI employees from engaging in undercover activity in which they represent, pose, or claim to be members of the news media, unless the activity is authorized as part of an undercover operation. In order for such an operation to be authorized, an application must first be approved by the head of the FBI field office submitting the application to FBIHQ, reviewed by the Undercover Review Committee at FBIHQ, and approved by the Deputy Director, after consultation with the Deputy Attorney General.

Let’s hope this puts an end to the tom-foolery. This does allow for some cases of undercover work acting as journalists, and I think there is probably a situation or two out there where they might have to do that (if a journalist is a target in a drug ring or child abuse scandal, then maybe yes, but even there, I think the FBI should act as drug- or child-porn traffickers, not reporters and editors).

Here’s the full report.

–Thurston

 

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