The Associated Press is bringing a lawsuit against the Department of Justice seeking information about the government’s use of a fake news story to catch a teenager suspected of calling in bomb threats.
Along with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the AP asked a district court on Thursday to force the department to turn over records regarding the FBI’s impersonation of a journalist and creation of a fake story in 2007.
Reporters from the two organizations submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests soon after news of the sting came to light in October but have not received any records in response, they said.
“We cannot overstate how damaging it is for federal agents to pose as journalists,” Katie Townsend, the litigation director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement. “This practice undermines the credibility of the independent news media, and should not be tolerated.
“Yet while the public clearly has a strong, compelling interest in knowing more about the FBI’s use of this tactic, the FBI seems determined to withhold that information,” she added. “We have been left with no choice but to look to the court for relief.”
Last October, federal documents revealed that an FBI agent had pretended to be an AP reporter in order to target a teenager suspected of making bomb threats to a local high school in 2007. The agent fabricated a draft of an AP story and placed it on a website made to look likeThe Seattle Times in order to plant malicious software on the suspect’s computer.
The agent sent the fake story headlined “Bomb threat at high school downplayed by local police department” to the suspect’s Myspace account.
Once they clicked on the story, malware downloaded onto the suspect’s computer that was intended to “geophysically locate” the teenager, federal documents said. The bogus story eventually led to the arrest of a 15-year-old student.
Media organizations were furious at the time and claimed that the FBI had undercut the legitimacy of a free press.
The episode also attracted attention on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — then the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee — warned then-Attorney General Eric Holder that the government’s tactics “carry ethical and legal risks.”
The FBI defended the impersonation as a legitimate attempt to stop a possible act of terror.
“No actual story was published, and no one except the suspect interacted with the undercover ‘A.P.’ employee or saw the fake draft story,” FBI Director James Comey wrote in a letter to The New York Times shortly after the incident came to light. “Only the suspect was fooled.”
Documents released in October indicated the FBI had obtained a warrant before deploying the malware.