FBI Releases Guidelines On Impersonating Journalists, Seems Unworried About Its Impact On Actual Journalists

from the whatever.-at-least-it's-not-harming-investigations.-yet. dept

The FBI’s impersonation of journalists raised questions about its investigative activities, none of which the FBI felt like addressing. An Inspector General’s investigation of FBI investigations using this tactic found that it was generally a bad idea, but not an illegal or unconstitutional one. Prior to the investigation, the FBI apparently had no clear policies governing this form of impersonation, which it used to snare a school-bombing suspect.

Following the report, a policy was put in place that added some additional layers of oversight but didn’t indicate the obvious downside of impersonating journalists: that the people the FBI wants to investigate are going to do a lot less talking to anyone they don’t know, which includes journalists attempting to document newsworthy events that might contain criminal activity.

The FBI blew it with one of its other impersonation efforts. As Camille Fassett reports for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a more recent effort may have put a serious damper on its fake news(person) efforts.

In an even more disturbing incident in 2015, FBI posed as a documentary filmmaker crew in order to gain the trust of a group of ranchers engaged in an armed standoff with the government. The fake crew recorded hundreds of hours of video and audio and spent months with the ranchers pretending to make a documentary.

The FBI tacitly acknowledged these efforts are great for the short-term, but ultimately harmful to the FBI in the long-term. Notably, it’s not because they have a chilling effect on press freedoms, but rather because they undermine trust in the entities the FBI wants to impersonate.

The FBI’s own arguments in the case acknowledge the chilling effect on journalism presented by this tactic. In a motion of summary judgment obtained by Freedom of the Press Foundation, the agency argued that it should not be required to disclose details about other instances of media impersonation, on the grounds that “it would allow criminals to judge whether they should completely avoid any contacts with documentary film crews, rendering the investigative technique ineffective.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has obtained the FBI’s guidelines [PDF] for undercover efforts that involve impersonating journalists. They indicate there are several levels of approval needed, but don’t contain details about what’s considered by those making these determinations.

The relevant FBI field office must submit an application to the Undercover Review Committee at FBI headquarters and it must be approved by the FBI Deputy Director after consultation with the Deputy Attorney General. The guidelines do not provide any criteria the FBI Deputy Director and/or the Deputy Attorney General must consider when approving these undercover activities.

All well and good, but one wonders how high the potential impact on civil liberties rates on the scale of 0-Impersonation, or whether it’s more important the agency doesn’t undermine future investigations by setting fire to the reputation of the impersonated entities by opening the Adventurous Reporter dress-up kit once too often.

I don’t believe the FBI doesn’t care at all about the collateral damage. I’m just reasonably certain it’s far more concerned about how often — and how successfully — it will be sued. Adding more layers of oversight won’t necessarily steer agents away from questionable tactics, but it will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to show the FBI carelessly caused damage to their livelihoods by pretending to be the press.

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Comments on “FBI Releases Guidelines On Impersonating Journalists, Seems Unworried About Its Impact On Actual Journalists”

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33 Comments
Zof (profile) says:

Point/Counterpoint

Point:

That shit the story said.

Counterpoint:

There are no real journalists left anymore. Everybody works for a corporation or political party now. Opinion Control is big business. We live in an age where Google helps set up news repeaters for NYT and CNN and WaPo so that if you block them as a news source on Google News, they are instantly replaced by one of 30,000 news repeaters telling the story Google wants to make damn sure you get.

Opinion Control, Tech by Google. All those eyes being literally forced to see what Google is being paid to show you.

And most of us use Google News. Yet nobody is talking about that. When a Techdirt or an ExtremeTechNews does a ballsy story about how the information we are being fed is being controlled by about 5 corporations and 200-300 top level corporate officers…

I’ll start believing you aren’t part of the problem here at Techdirt dot com.

Zof (profile) says:

Re: Re: Point/Counterpoint

Really?

Most of us use Google. Google uses unethical herding tactics to then get you to click on their news articles, then leading you into Google News, one of their most profitable products that they won’t talk about. Wonder Why? A big part of it is User Control is an illusion. They pretend you can block a news source, then bring it back because they are paid to.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Point/Counterpoint

Most of us use Google.

Again: [citation needed]

Google uses unethical herding tactics to then get you to click on their news articles, then leading you into Google News

This assumes people do not go to Google News of their own accord/ignore all non-GN search results/avoid their preferred news sites in favor of GN. Once again: [citation needed]

They pretend you can block a news source, then bring it back because they are paid to.

And you pretend that GN is an inherently mandatory part of an Internet user’s experience rather than a site that people can voluntarily refuse to visit. If I am wrong on that point, once more with feeling: [citation fucking needed]

You have issues with Google. I get that, believe me. But your entire rant assumes that Google News is both an unavoidable website and a mandatory tool for Internet use; you have to know, regardless of whether you will say so, that your implied beliefs about GN are not objective reality. If you want to continue peddling bullshit, go apply for a position at InfoWars. Do not peddle it here; you will find that the regular crowd of commenters (myself included) do not accept bullshit just because we might tangentially agree with one small part of it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Point/Counterpoint

“most of us use Google News”

I find this difficult to believe. Also, I doubt there has been a scientific survey that supports the claim.

“Yet nobody is talking about that.”

Some one is now …..

” information we are being fed is being controlled by about 5 corporations “

I do not like being spoon fed, not real partial to forks either.

How can we all not be part of the problem … what ever that is?

John Smith says:

Re: Re: Re:

LOTS of people know who “they” are. Masnick’s a journalist and wouldn’t be doing his job if I didn’t know who the bad guys are. I didn’t say HE was the bad guy. Journalists know people on all sides.

If he covered organized crime for the NY Post and the FBI started doing documentaries on the Five Families he’d know the risk that presented to the Dons. Doesn’t mean HE is the don, just that he has a ringside seat from which he reports to entertain us all.

The real badguys know who they are and no one else here needs to know.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Smith, A Smith

Just the opposite – since anyone can sign the post John Smith, many people do. Logging in would at least let commentators maintain a consistent identity.
On the one hand we have Blue – signing a different name each post. (Because: Tinfoil!)
On the other hand Smith – who is really several different authors. Mostly because they are taking shots at TD or one of the other Smiths. (Poorly, however.)

That One Guy (profile) says:

'It would impact us... and, I suppose, the press too.'

I don’t believe the FBI doesn’t care at all about the collateral damage.

Doesn’t care at all? Perhaps not. Places ‘will this damage trust in the press?’ very, very low on the list of things to consider, much lower than ‘how will the collateral damage impact us?’? Almost certainly.

The FBI’s own arguments in the case acknowledge the chilling effect on journalism presented by this tactic. In a motion of summary judgment obtained by Freedom of the Press Foundation, the agency argued that it should not be required to disclose details about other instances of media impersonation, on the grounds that “it would allow criminals to judge whether they should completely avoid any contacts with documentary film crews, rendering the investigative technique ineffective.”

They acknowledge that their tactics stand to cause chilling effects on journalism, but rather than abandon those tactics they instead argued that they shouldn’t have to tell people that they’re using it for their sake.

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