FBI impersonation of news media online called "inexcusable" by Reporters Committee, news orgs [corrected]

Press Release | November 6, 2014

In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and FBI Director James B. Comey Jr., the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 25 news organizations have asked for full disclosure of the facts surrounding the FBI’s utilization of a fake Associated Press article online that delivered tracking software to a suspect’s computer, enabling the FBI to locate him.

As the Reporters Committee letter points out, the warrant for such action apparently did not mention that the tracker was delivered as an AP article, with an AP byline “and therefore impersonated a news media organization.” Concerned that the FBI not only failed to follow its own guidelines for such activity, but also did not make clear to the judge who signed the warrant or FBI counsel that the software “impersonated a media organization or that there were First Amendment concerns at stake.”

It is also unclear whether the name of The Seattle Times was involved. “We call upon the FBI to immediately release the full records of this case so that the press and the public can ascertain what happened, what was subject to appropriate oversight, and what was not,” the letter stated.

“The utilization of news media as a cover for delivery of electronic surveillance software is unacceptable,” the media coalition stated. “This practice endangers the media’s credibility and creates the appearance that it is not independent of the government. It undermines media organizations’ ability to independently report on law enforcement. It lends itself to the appearance that media organizations are compelled to speak on behalf of the government.

“We therefore urge the Attorney General and FBI to clarify that impersonation of the media is unacceptable, whether it is digital or physical, and whether it is of the individual or of an organization.”

The letter closed with a request to the FBI to expedite release of records relating to its practice of digitally impersonating news media, as requested by a Reporters Committee Freedom of Information Act filing last week.

Joining the Reporters Committee letter were: American Society of News Editors; Association of Alternative Newsmedia; Bloomberg L.P.; The Center for Investigative Reporting; Committee to Protect Journalists; Courthouse News Service; First Amendment Coalition; Freedom of the Press Foundation; Gannett Co. Inc.; Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University; The McClatchy Company; Media Consortium; National Newspaper Association; The National Press Club; National Press Photographers Association; The New York Times Company; The News Guild – CWA; Newspaper Association of America; North Jersey Media Group Inc.; Radio Television Digital News Association; The Seattle Times Company; Stephens Media LLC; Tribune Publishing Company; Tully Center for Free Speech; and The Washington Post.

About the Reporters Committee

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.