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Inspector General urges FBI to permanently restrict impersonation of journalists

By Andrew V. Pestano

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- U.S. Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz on Thursday urged the FBI to make permanent a temporary restriction that makes it more difficult for agents to impersonate journalists.

In 2007, FBI investigators posted a fake Associated Press story on a website designed to look like the Seattle Times in order to infect a Washington-area suspect's computer with surveillance software to determine his location. The target was a student suspected of issuing bomb threats to a high school.

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A story titled "Bomb threat at high school downplayed by local police department" was sent to the student suspected of making the threats and of launching cyberattacks against the school's computer network.

The student, Charles Jenkins, later wrote emails with an FBI agent who identified himself as an "AP staff publisher" in order to get Jenkins to click on links and photographs that would trigger a computer program that would reveal his location. Jenkins' threats were later determined to be a hoax.

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"We found that policies in effect in 2007 did not expressly egress the tactic of agents impersonating journalists, and although they provided some guidance, they were less than clear, as a result our review determined that judgments made by FBI agents in 2007, did not violate undercover policies in place at that time," Horowitz said in a video detailing his agency's report. "More significantly, in June 2016 ... the FBI adopted a much more strict interim policy that makes it clear that FBI agents are prohibited from impersonating journalists unless they obtain a series of special approvals."

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The FBI's tactic was unveiled in 2014, to the disapproval of national news organizations arguing the tactic could threaten the public's trust in the media. The AP and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a lawsuit against the FBI last year.

"We believe the FBI's new policy is a significant improvement to policies that existed in 2007," Horowitz added.

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