It was almost a year ago that a disclosure about the FBI feeding a fake story to the Associated Press (AP)rocked the news world. After nearly a year of avoiding responsibility and evading legal ramifications, the repercussions are finally being felt, and the chickens have come home to roost.
The case involved a false news story sent to a 15 year-old boy suspected of making bomb threats to a high school near Olympia, Washington. The link implanted by the FBI allowed it to then locate the computer at the teen’s residence. In a past article on the subject I opined that,
“The FBI action is especially loathsome because in linking to a news site, in this case the Associated Press (AP), they run the risk of undermining one of the lynchpins of democracy- a free press which can be trusted.”
The AP was obviously and rightfully outraged at being manipulated and misled, leading to a year-long quest for redress over a grave situation which could have undermined its credibility. During this period the FBI has been non-committal and non-cooperative, so on Thursday the AP sued the US Department of Justice (DOJ) over its failure to provide public records related to the bogus new story. It was joined by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the filing.
AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser said in a 2014 letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder that,
“The FBI both misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press and created a situation where our credibility could have been undermined on a large scale. It is improper and inconsistent with a free press for government personnel to masquerade as The Associated Press or any other news organization. FBI may have intended this false story as a trap for only one person. However, the individual could easily have reposted this story to social networks, distributing to thousands of people, under our name, what was essentially a piece of government disinformation.”
The incident came to light in October of 2014, and by November the FBI was in complete retreat and denial about culpability, despite revealing that one of its undercover agents had in fact impersonated an AP reporter and tricked the young suspect into reviewing a copy of the proposed story about the bomb threats.
It should be pointed out that guidelines governing such practices were more relaxed in 2007, the time-frame of the scam. Regardless of a higher bar today, FBI Director James Comey insisted the fake reporter tactic was ’’proper and appropriate”, and in fact lawful. The latter point remains to be determined, and may yet play out in open court.
While pressing for information on this case, the AP is concurrently assessing ways of determining how often this tactic has been employed since the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent enactment of the odious Patriot Act. But the world should not hold its breath, as FBI stonewalling and foot-dragging could stretch for years, although the intervention of a federal judge’s order could speed-up the inquiry.
As we witness the loss of citizen’s freedoms in places such as Russia and China due to repression of free speech, it should not be lost on fair-minded people everywhere that akin to repression is the undermining of press credibility. As I wrote nearly a year ago, an unfettered and credible press is the linchpin of a strong democracy.