The Slatest

FBI Apprehended Suspect by Pretending to Be the AP

FBI Director James Comey at the White House.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

The FBI is drawing ire from news organizations and civil liberties groups alike with the discovery that a bureau agent pretended to be an Associated Press journalist in order to dupe a suspect into clicking a link that would deploy location-revealing malware to his computer.

Last month, news broke that in 2007 the FBI had sent the suspect, a 15-year-old boy accused of making bomb threats, a link to a fake AP article about the bomb threats via his MySpace page. When he clicked the link, software enabled the FBI to determine his location, and he was apprehended. The news circulated when the ACLU’s chief technologist found documentation of the tactic in documents obtained from the FBI through the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Now it’s been revealed that the agent who messaged the suspect the link to the fake article did so under the guise of being a reporter from the Associated Press who wanted to verify the facts of the piece. FBI Director James Comey revealed this additional layer of the story in a letter to the New York Times on Thursday defending the FBI’s actions.

In the letter, Comey responded to “Deceptions of the FBI,” a critical editorial by the Times’ board, and characterized the FBI’s use of deception as both responsible and legal:

Relying on an agency behavioral assessment that the anonymous suspect was a narcissist, the online undercover officer portrayed himself as an employee of The Associated Press, and asked if the suspect would be willing to review a draft article about the threats and attacks, to be sure that the anonymous suspect was portrayed fairly.

The suspect agreed and clicked on a link relating to the draft “story,” which then deployed court-authorized tools to find him, and the case was solved. No actual story was published, and no one except the suspect interacted with the undercover “A.P.” employee or saw the fake draft story. Only the suspect was fooled, and it led to his arrest and the end of a frightening period for a high school.

That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and F.B.I. guidelines at the time…Every undercover operation involves “deception,” which has long been a critical tool in fighting crime. 

Even before the news of an agent posing as a reporter broke, the AP was not happy with the FBI’s use of its name. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the AP called for the Justice Department to disclose other times the FBI has impersonated media organizations and to create policy changes to ensure such impersonations don’t happen again in the future. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also released a letter to Holder in which he wrote that the FBI’s imitation technique “potentially undermines the integrity and credibility of an independent press.”