WASHINGTON ― In 2007, the FBI published fake Associated Press articles and impersonated an AP reporter in emails meant to help unmask a hoaxer who was sending bomb threats to a high school in Washington state. But the agency didn’t do a particularly credible job, even failing to follow AP Style.
A new report by the Justice Department’s inspector general focuses on the FBI’s decision to create a fake news article with an Associated Press byline titled, “Bomb threat at high school downplayed by local police department.” Opening the article would be used to put a tracking program on the computer of the hoaxer who sent the threat, and agents planned to use that to identify his location.
Using the name “Norm Weatherill,” an FBI agent identified himself as an “AP Staff Publisher” in emails that were sent to the suspect’s MySpace account and included the link to the computer program developed to track him down. In one email, the agent capitalized the term “staff writer.” In another, the agent capitalized the word “press” and even the phrase “school meeting,” for some reason.
“Disappointed that I did not get a response from my ‘anonymous’ interview request,” the agent wrote in the email. “The article was not published in today’s papers, but my Staff Writer drafted an updated version and we left blanks if you would like to comment.”
Here’s the text of the follow-up email, which weirdly repeatedly capitalizes the word “press”:
I respect that you do not want to be bothered by the Press. Please let me explain my actions. I am not trying to find out your true identity. As a member of the Press, I would rather not know who you are as writers are not allowed to reveal their sources. The school has continually requested that the Press NOT cover this story. After the School Meeting last night, it is obvious to me that this needs coverage. Readers find this type of story fascinating. People don’t understand your actions and we are left to guess what message you are trying to send.
Despite the fact that the “entire investigative team was present” and “consulted together about what to say before the message was sent,” none of them apparently thought to follow AP Style.
While the incident happened in 2007, the FBI’s undercover techniques didn’t get any attention until 2014. FBI Director James Comey defended the decision to impersonate an AP reporter in a letter to The New York Times that same year.
Following an investigation that’s taken two years to complete, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog concluded that the FBI policies in place in 2007 “did not expressly address the tactic of agents impersonating journalists.” Under an interim policy currently in place, FBI agents are clearly prohibited “from engaging in undercover activity in which they represent, pose, or claim to be members of the news media, unless the activity is authorized as part of an undercover operation.”
A 10th grade student was arrested in connection with the bomb threats a few days after they occurred.
The original story apparently did not follow AP Style either:
The AP is “deeply disappointed” with the findings of the Inspector General report, a spokesman said in a statement on Thursday.
Impersonating reporters “compromises the ability of a free press to gather the news safely and effectively” and raises constitutional issues, said Paul Colford, a vice president and director of media relations at the organization. “Once again AP calls on the government to refrain from any activities involving the impersonation of the news media and we demand to be heard in the development of any policies addressing such conduct.”
This article was updated after publication with a statement from the AP.