The FBI Is Offended That It Isn't Allowed To Control How The Press Portrays Its Deceptive Activities

from the poor-james-comey dept

The last few weeks have revealed a bunch of deceptive practices by law enforcement — mainly the FBI. First, there was the revelation that the FBI had impersonated an online news story to install malware in trying to track a high school bomb threat. Then, there was a story from a couple of weeks ago about the FBI turning off internet access at some luxury villas in Las Vegas, and then acting as repair technicians to get inside and search the place (while filming everything). That was a story we had hoped to cover, but hadn’t yet gotten to it. However, after the NY Times editorial board slammed that operation, FBI Director James Comey wrote a reply defending the FBI’s “use of deception.”

First, Comey defends the fake news story, noting that it was perfectly legal… under “Justice Department and FBI guidelines at the time.” As Scott Greenfield notes, this is the “Nixon answer” to questions of illegality by the executive branch:

By Comey?s hand, he defines lawful as approved by the Department of Justice and FBI. To put this less tactfully, it?s lawful if he says it?s lawful. It?s the executive branch Nixon answer, that the president can commit no crime because he?s the president.

Comey also defends the practice because it worked, as if that’s the justification needed:

In 2007, to solve a series of bomb threats and cyberattacks directed at a Seattle-area high school, an F.B.I. agent communicated online with the anonymous suspect. 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.

Except, of course, all sorts of illegal and privacy-invasive investigative techniques may work to catch criminals, but we don’t allow them, because of the impact on everyone else. That’s what the whole 4th Amendment is about. And basic concepts like protecting privacy. Yes, we’d catch more criminals if the FBI had mandated microphones and cameras in everyone’s house, but we don’t allow that because it goes too far. The fact that “it works” makes no comment on whether or not it’s appropriate or legal.

As for the Vegas sting using fake internet technicians, Comey’s response there is even more pathetic, chiding the press for reporting on public filings in the court case before the Justice Department has responded:

The Las Vegas case is still in litigation, so there is little we can say, but it would have been better to wait for the government?s response and a court decision before concluding that the F.B.I. engaged in abusive conduct.

Marcy Wheeler has the best response to that, highlighting how the FBI, in this very same case (but it’s also true in lots of high-profile FBI cases) put out press releases that only gave its side of the story, and claimed things as fact that were misleading and inaccurate — but didn’t seem to have any problem with the press taking its one side of the story without considering the response from the accused:

Jim Comey thinks the press shouldn?t report on this until after the government has had its shot at rebuttal? Does he feel the same about the army of FBI leakers who pre-empt defense cases all the time? Does Comey think it improper for his FBI to have released this press release, upon defendant Wei Seng Phua?s arrest, asserting that he is a member of organized crime as a fact and mentioning a prior arrest (not a conviction) that may or may not be deemed admissible to this case?

According to the criminal complaint, Wei Seng Phua, is known by law enforcement to be a high ranking member of the 14K Triad, an Asian organized crime group. On or about June 18, 2013, Phua was arrested in Macau, along with more than 20 other individuals, for operating an illegal sport book gambling business transacting illegal bets on the World Cup Soccer Tournament. Phua posted bail in Macau and was released. 

I didn?t see the FBI Director complaining about press stories, written in response to the press release, reported before the defense had been able to present their side.

And, so, apparently, not only does the FBI director think it’s proper to use deceptive practices if “it works,” he also thinks that the press should only report on the FBI’s side of the story, furthering the deceptive practices with what’s effectively propaganda. The use of deception by law enforcement is already questionable enough. Asking the press to be a willing participant in that deception is simply ridiculous.

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Comments on “The FBI Is Offended That It Isn't Allowed To Control How The Press Portrays Its Deceptive Activities”

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Anonymous Coward says:

New York Times vs. The Weekly World News

“Asking the press to be a willing participant in that deception is simply ridiculous.”

But we’re talking about the New York Times here, a paper with a long history of spewing lies and propaganda. How could anyone forget Judith Miller’s front page stories, week after week, about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” that served to propel the United States to war in a frenzied panic.

The New York Times is no more trustworthy than The Weekly World News.

Anonymous Coward says:

Asking the press to be a willing participant in that deception is simply ridiculous.

Asking would be an improvement. Right now they don’t ask; they just do it.

the FBI turning off internet access

If they did not have a court order, this should be just as criminal as if I turned off a random person’s internet access. Seriously. This isn’t just “tricking” someone by pretending to be Geek Squad (which is problematic in itself.) It’s actively interfering with their life.

What’s next? They want to search someone’s car without a warrant, so they spread nails along the person’s driveway, causing them to get a flat tire, and then they use a Stingray to intercept the call to the towing company and redirect it to their officers, and FBI agents wearing the tow company’s uniforms tow the car and then secretly search it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Used to be there was a distinct line between communist countries and the US who stood for individual rights, privacy, and legality. The line has so blurred that now the FBI and assorted acronyms actions are more akin to secret police.

“It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell,” said Wilbur F. Storey, editor and publisher of the Chicago Times.

There’s been a whole lot less print the news and raise hell than there should be. Far too much cover up as it is. What Comey is demanding is complicit co-operation to hide the facts. That’s not a free society, that’s more like dictatorship.

Cryophallion says:

The ends justify... Something...

So basically he’s saying “the ends justify the means, and even when they don’t, they should and could, so just in case, we’re going to keep doing it.”
Sadly, they don’t realizing that those means also justify the end: of our trust in them, and their ability to use those means once enough people realize how awful they are for them. Luckily, they still have the news organizations helping them by sharing people that there is a terrorist in every school and town. But that’s slowly changing, and soon, I hope, people will wake up to it. Sorry, I have to go, I’m watching the train car for terrorists, including the ones that proclaim they are on our side. Who pay their trade of providing terror of an unseen enemy so they can get away with whatever they want.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Offend and intimidate

Good! Offend the FBI even more.

Better yet, intimidate them: Teach them that wrongdoing and despotism are career decisions.

Back when we had a fourth estate that worked, that was one of the principle things that allowed it work: Our leaders were afraid to offend the press because, if they did, the press would focus on discovering their wrongdoing and putting them in jail–or at least on the bread line.

Back then leaders treated the press with kid gloves; and prayed (sometimes fruitlessly) that the press didn’t notice their crimes.

Anonymous Coward says:

FBI is unfortunately correct

In this case the FBI is unfortunately unoquivically correct. When in a state of emergency (Bush declared it in 2001, renewed and then Obama renewed in 2008) executive power is given to censor the media, issue state sanctioned propaganda and set rules on the first ammendment.

It certainly isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. At least after WWII they ended it within 5 years. So long as “The War on Terror” exist there will never be such thing as “news” or “free speech” because the State of Emergency will still exist.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: FBI is unfortunately correct

Well, ever since the whole Snowden NSA revelations, we’ve had an understanding that legal in no way means moral or right.

In fact, that dragnet surveillance, the police state and the CIA torture program are all legal are good indicators that we’re in that corporate-controlled dystopia sci-fi authors have been predicting since the 70s.

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