The FBI has revealed that one of its agents impersonated an Associated Press reporter in 2007 in order to trap a suspect in a Seattle bomb threat case, prompting a rebuke from the news agency, which said the sting undermined press freedom and independence.
In a letter published by the New York Times on Thursday, FBI Director James Comey said an FBI agent contacted a suspect in a series of bomb threats to a Seattle-area high school and "portrayed himself as an employee of The Associated Press."
The agent asked the suspect to review a phony draft article for accuracy, Comey said. He said no one but the suspect saw the fake article or interacted with the agent posed as a reporter, and he said the deceptive tactic was responsible and legal.
"Only the suspect was fooled, and it led to his arrest and the end of a frightening period for a high school," Comey wrote.
The AP had previously complained to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder when the FBI said it had fabricated a news story in the investigation. The agency renewed its concerns after Comey revealed the impersonation in the letter.
"This latest revelation of how the FBI misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press doubles our concern and outrage," AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said in a statement on Thursday.
The story was never published but was sent to the suspect as a link. When he clicked on the link, it activated tracking software the FBI used to find him.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 25 news organizations wrote on Thursday to Holder and Comey asking for full disclosure of how the FBI impersonated a news media organization.
"The utilization of news media as a cover for delivery of electronic surveillance software is unacceptable," the group said in the letter. "This practice endangers the media's credibility and creates the appearance that it is not independent of the government."
(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Editing by Susan Heavey)