On Tuesday afternoon, FBI Seattle bureau spokesperson Ayn Dietrich-Williams called me on my cell phone. The main purpose of her phone call was to inform me that, although FBI agents appear to have used the Seattle Times as a reference when crafting a fake story to lure a suspect into installing spyware on his computer, the fake story they actually sent out only pretended to be from the Associated Press.
Earlier that day, the AP had said the FBI's "ploy" undermines the news agency's credibility and called it "unacceptable."
As we talked about the implications of her clarification, Dietrich-Williams betrayed a blasé attitude toward objections by media outlets to the FBI impersonating any reporter, regardless of which publication it might be. At one point, she compared journalists to dentists and suggested FBI agents pretending to be either one was equally harmless.
"We just used something in the style of media," she told me. "We could have pulled it off the Washington Post or New York Times."
FBI agents were racing against time to catch the suspect, Dietrich-Williams said. At the time, the suspect was a 15-year-old who was sending bomb threats to Timberline High School near Olympia. The year was 2007. The agents "knew the media approach would work with him" because, she explained, he was a megalomaniacal person who'd be interested in coverage of his exploits.
The "technique" of impersonating journalists, Dietrich-Williams emphasized to me, is rarely used. How rarely, though? Could she provide a general number for how many times this has happened? "That's something you'd have to FOIA," she told me. And the FBI's new Seattle bureau head, Frank Montoya Jr., will not be offering any further public comment on the matter, she said.
I suggested that the desire to quickly catch a suspect does not justify impersonating media organizations, which are meant to play the role of independent watchdogs of government.
"If you and I were at dinner, we'd have a long discussion about the ethics of it," she said. "What if we said that we were dentists. Would all the dentists be upset?"
They probably would. Medical professionals, like journalists, are trusted with personal information about their patients. Without that trust, their work becomes more difficult and the same is true for journalists—without the trust that readers and sources have in reporters, there wouldn't be a meaningful independent press. And journalistic work is already difficult enough. Some journalists are being threatened with jail time by the Obama administration for publishing what they uncover. Around the world, journalists are often targeted for violence with bullets and bombs. They get killed on the job nationally and internationally. If hackers (even hackers who threaten to blow things up, as in 2007) cannot trust that journalists are who they say they are, they may see them as enemies rather than as neutral parties.
Dietrich-Williams's comments haven't mollified Seattle Times editor Kathy Best much, either. Best expressed outrage on Monday after the FBI's ruse first came to light. "Even if the Times name wasn’t used, the issues raised are the same," Best said in a statement Tuesday. "The FBI, in placing the name of the Associated Press on a phony story sent to a criminal suspect, crossed a line and undermined the credibility of journalists everywhere—including at The Times.”
Can we expect better from the FBI, America's top law enforcement agency? That they might adhere to some, you know, principles, out of respect for the Fourth Estate?
Absent stronger pushback from journalists and the public, the answer appears to be no. In 2000, reporters caught on to the fact that FBI agents were pretending to be journalists, complete with their own press passes, in Spokane during the trial of a group of white supremacists. "This decision... put the reporters covering the trial at risk," said Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, the Society of Professional Journalists' president at the time. “Should the crowd have uncovered the FBI scam, undoubtedly it would have been taken out on the working press—people who were there covering a trial and using legitimate credentials.”
During the furor over the FBI's scam, the local sheriff who'd given the agents fake media credentials pulled them and said he regretted the decision.
In 2010, a man blockading a street in Haiti during an outburst of riots stopped me, pulled out a knife, and demanded to see my press badge. He examined it closely for a moment. Then he let me pass through, but warned that I should have worn it more visibly on the outside of my shirt. If he hadn't believed in the authenticity of my badge, it's hard to know what would have happened. That badge helped me get through several barricades.
"In 1996 we asked you to take action for a similar abuse," SPJ's Niederpruem continued, in an open letter to the Clinton administration and FBI. "Apparently, the Bureau didn’t get the message then—and didn’t adjust its own policies to avoid repeating history."