Washington: The FBI’s use of an undercover agent posing as a journalist — which led to an uproar in the news media — did not violate agency policy, a Justice Department review concluded Thursday.
The inspector general’s report said that in the 2007 case, in which an FBI agent investigating an e-mail bomb threat claimed to be an Associated Press reporter, was within guidelines of the law enforcement agency at the time.
The report said a new interim policy adopted by the FBI earlier this year limits the impersonation of members of the media, but still could authorize similar actions in the future.
“We concluded that FBI policies in 2007 did not expressly address the tactic of agents impersonating journalists,” the report said.
The review of the so-called Timberline investigation at a high school in Washington state noted that some aspects of the FBI policy were “less than clear” but that the investigative team “did not appear to fully consider” seeking high-level approval for the actions.
After news of the impersonation was revealed, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and some 25 news organizations wrote a letter to the FBI and Justice Department, saying the practice endangers the media’s credibility and undermines its independence.
Responding to the review, AP vice president Paul Colford said the news organization “is deeply disappointed” by the findings, saying they “effectively condone the FBI’s impersonation of an AP journalist in 2007.”
“Such action compromises the ability of a free press to gather the news safely and effectively and raises serious constitutional concerns,” he said in a statement.
“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.”
As the review was being finalized, the FBI adopted a new interim policy in June 2016 “that provides guidance to FBI employees regarding their impersonation of members of the news media during undercover activity or an undercover operation,” according to the report.
“We found that prior to the adoption of this new interim policy, FBI policy would not have prohibited FBI employees from engaging in the undercover activities agents conducted during the 2007 Timberline investigation,” the report said.
The new interim policy, according to the report, “clearly prohibits FBI employees 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.”
Such an operation must be approved by the head of the FBI field office and followed by a series of approvals by the agency in consultation with the Justice Department.
“We believe the FBI’s new interim policy is a significant improvement to policies that existed in 2007,” the report said.
The report also said the FBI “should consider the appropriate level of review” before using names of third-party organizations or businesses without their knowledge or consent.