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FBI agents pose as photographers during Aryan Nation trial

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  1. Newsgathering
From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 11.

From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 11.

In an effort to blend in with reporters, seven undercover federal agents used press credentials and posed as photographers during a civil trial against Aryan Nation activist Richard Butler. The sheriff’s department later revoked the false credentials after reporters complained.

Dozens of reporters descended on the small town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to cover the trial in August. In all, more than 60 journalists including reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio requested credentials.

The few protesters who appeared were demonstrating against the Southern Poverty Law Center’s civil suit against the Aryan Nation and Butler on behalf of a mother and son who were assaulted by armed guards after driving past the group’s compound. They said their car backfired, and the guards, thinking they had been shot at, chased them. Two guards were sentenced to prison for the attack.

Capt. Ben Wolfinger, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department, granted seven press passes to FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents monitoring protestors outside the courtroom.

Tom Clouse, a reporter for The Spokesman-Review, uncovered the plan and wrote about it for the newspaper. Clouse suspected the motive was to allow undercover agents to photograph suspected Aryan Nations members. Clouse said Wolfinger, not the county sheriff, suggested the FBI use media credentials to blend in.

During the first day of the trial, Clouse said the large number of journalists made it difficult to spot the imposters. However, as the trial moved into the second and third day, journalists began taking notice of some photographers’ strange behavior.

“One of the photographers in question would ask to take a demonstrator’s picture and then promise to give them prints for $2 to $5,” Clouse said.

He also noticed the photographers also asked their subjects to pose for pictures and their equipment appeared to be brand new and still had barcode stickers on it.

When asked their names and what organization they worked for, the undercover agents gave names contrary to those listed on their media credentials, Clouse said.

After Clouse’s article appeared in print several other photographers admitted they had similar suspicions about some of the photographers. The reporters all agreed the practice of media impersonation makes a real journalist’s job more difficult, Clouse said.

“They’re putting us in danger,” he said. “The Aryan Nation is not somebody you want to mess with.”

Under attorney general guidelines established in 1992, FBI agents can be authorized to pose as journalists under limited circumstances and with prior approval from supervisors.

Attorney General Janet Reno announced in early 1995 that she was considering a request to create guidelines barring FBI and other federal agents from posing as journalists, but no action has been taken since then, according to the Justice Department.

National journalism organizations denounced the FBI for impersonating journalists. The Society for Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Radio-Television News Directors Association all criticized the practice in recent letters to FBI Director Louis Freeh. The National Federation of Press Women followed suit and urged the FBI to ban the practice of impersonating the media.

The groups complained that when officials impersonate the media, members of the public are less willing to cooperate with the media, which jeopardizes newsgathering and compromises the independent role of the news media.

According to the Associated Press, the FBI issued a statement acknowledging its agents were on hand in Coeur d’Alene. However, spokesman Bill Matthews in the bureau’s Salt Lake City office declined to say whether agents were posing as journalists.

“The Salt Lake City division has a legitimate and legal interest in the public activities currently taking place at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho,” Matthews read from a statement. –LR