FBI agents get away with a fake — this time

In an old TV detective show, a murderer who’d improvised a poisonous dart shooter out of a rolled-up boxing match program, confessed when confronted with the fact that his lip prints were found on the magazine. Afterwards, the detective’s assistant said, wonderingly, she’d never heard of lip prints. The detective answered, they don’t exist, I just made that up.

Police and law enforcement such as the FBI have long used many forms of deception when trying to solve crimes. The legal limits on deception are fuzzy. Courts have upheld convictions in which cops told suspects wrongly and deliberately that their fingerprints were found at the scene. But they’ve overturned convictions when police deception amounted to coercion.

Sometimes deception takes the form of impersonation, often in undercover work. What happens when FBI agents impersonated reporters — now grandiosely known as journalists? The reporters and their employers get up in arms. They claim the practice undermines their ability to gather news because sources can’t be sure they’re not cops.

Given recent polls on how the public thinks about the media, you wonder if people would rather talk to law enforcement in the first place.

Maybe you’ve followed this story. Back in 2007, FBI agents impersonated Associated Press people in attempting to find the physical location of someone emailing bomb and death threats to a high school near Seattle. The threats caused two evacuations. To top it off, the emailer also sent a distributed denial-of-service attack, knocking out the school’s network. Given the recent history of high school attacks, no wonder the local jurisdiction reached out to the FBI, which took it pretty darn seriously.

The incident ended up having a very long tail. It prompted the government to do what it often does. Namely, make a tighter policy for something authorities feel, for whatever reason, fell between the cracks — call it policy caulking.  In this case, an “interim” policy, I guess to see how it floats.

It’s all detailed in this Justice inspector general report released last week. The agents got a teenager, who’d been using a proxy server to launch the threats, to click on a link in an email purporting to contain news photos. Links in the email enabled the FBI to insert software into the kid’s computer giving up his actual origination point.

Charles Jenkins got juvenile detention, probation, mandatory counseling. And he was expelled from school. Life’s always a tradeoff.

Wired had a story about the FBI tactics shortly after Chuck confessed. It took another seven years, but then the Seattle Times published a story about the FBI methodology of impersonation.  That did it. A couple of dozen news organizations protested. Many indignant editorials were published. FBI director Jim Comey defended the tactic publicly.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz has now concluded the agents conformed to undercover policy in place at the time, which didn’t precisely cover impersonation of a reporter. It looks to me like the agents might have figured it’s better to ask forgiveness than seek permission.

Since then, the FBI has imposed a much tighter policy. Agents feeling the need to impersonate a reporter have to submit the request to local supervisors, who submit it to an undercover review committee, which runs it over to a duo of the deputy FBI director and the deputy attorney general for final approval.

I wonder how long that could take.

Horowitz describes the new procedures in this video, showing a bit of media savvy himself.

More commentary


Sign up for breaking news alerts