Stop or I’ll write! Why cops shouldn’t fake being reporters.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James B. Comey waved his truncheon at the New York Times last week in a concise letter of protest addressed to the paper’s editor. The FBI, denounced in a Nov. 1 Times editorial for impersonating an Associated Press reporter in a 2007 Seattle-area case, had nothing to apologize for, insisted Comey. While the impersonation was “unusual,” he wrote, it was still proper, appropriate, and lawful.
In the case, a high school had been the target of a series of anonymous bomb threats. As was recently revealed, police enlisted the FBI, and an FBI agent pretending to be an AP reporter began communicating over the Internet with a 15-year-old who was suspected of sending the threats. The deception did not end there, however. The FBI composed a fake AP story — “Technology savvy student holds Timberline High School hostage,” which the FBI’s fake AP reporter sent to the suspect and asked him to review for fairness. The kid clicked on a link in the story, the link surreptitiously loaded software onto his computer, the software telegraphed the computer’s location back to the FBI, and he was arrested.
Comey allowed himself some wiggle room in his letter to the Times. The journalistic-impostor ruse would require higher approval if proposed today, he wrote. But Comey didn’t vow to ban the practice completely, which means there’s a really long shot that the last reporter who phoned or emailed you wasn’t a reporter, he was an FBI agent. Every other big-city chief of police and podunk sheriff who read Comey’s letter probably banged his desk in approval and started to think of hard-to-solve crimes they could crack if only their detectives could go undercover as journalists. If Comey says it’s okay, they could logically reason, why shouldn’t they follow his example.
Obviously, police have long relied on guises to investigate crimes, routinely impersonating drug dealers, prostitutes, homeless people, children (on the Internet), gangsters, johns, hit-men, crooked businessmen, the man-in-the-street, terrorists, and others in their missions to gather evidence, apprehend suspects, and build cases.
So why are the Times editorialists and the CEO of AP (pdf) so steamed about the FBI’s conduct? What’s so special about journalists and journalism? I hope my explanations don’t sound like special-interest pleading when I state that such acts corrupt the very existence of journalism. Whenever police officers masquerade as journalists, they introduce doubt into the public’s mind about whether the next person purporting to be a journalist is actually a police officer or the stories in the news are really bait set by police. It won’t take too many acts of imposture like the FBI’s in Seattle before the credibility of the press and the willingness of news sources to speak to reporters begins to fall, plugging the flow of information that nourishes a free society. Impersonators also expose genuine journalists to unnecessary physical dangers when violent sources have reason to think the nosy parkers asking them questions aren’t reporters, but cops. Impersonation can also boomerang on police: If a violent source unmasks a fake reporter as a cop, he might retaliate in his fury.
As best we know, police impersonation of journalists has become rare in the United States in recent years. Newark police seized a news crew’s video camera in 2000 when an alleged hostage-taker demanded to talk to a TV audience. In a 2001 police standoff in Texas, a detective borrowed a press photographer’s camera and notepad to talk to a murder suspect who requested a conversation with a reporter. The practice was much more common in the 1960s and early 1970s, when police sought to spy on political activists. A 1971 study found Army intelligence agents to be the grossest offenders. They posed as cameramen at the 1969 presidential inauguration, obtained press credentials to monitor H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael during the 1967 riots, and investigated the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Across the country, police monitored civil rights and anti-war demonstrations while posing as journalists, sometimes even carrying press credentials issued by the police. The FBI and other agencies also paid unscrupulous journalists to work as part-time informants, the study adds, contaminating journalism by turning reporters into agents of the state.
The American press is probably a more delicate institution than we’d like to admit. It survives as a credible outpost only as long as people regard it as independent of government power and influence, which is one of the reasons reporters seem so often to be picking fights with office-holders and government agencies. Any blurring of the line between government and press can only benefit the government at the expense of the press and the dilution of the best law the country has, the First Amendment. If a law officer tells you that his force has exhausted every means of solving a terribly important, life-threatening case and he must dress a few cops in journalist garb to crack it, quote him the famous line from Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil: “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”
Hey, no jokes about me impersonating a journalist! Send examples of cops posing as journos to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed does a good cop impersonation. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on “Threats to the Homeland,” on Capitol Hill in Washington Nov. 14, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas