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Associated Press Files Suit; Demands FBI Arrest Records


The Federal Bureau of Investigation came up with an effective way to gather information - investigators masqueraded as the news media. This really bothers people who are in the news media, which is why the Associated Press and a reporter's group are suing the FBI. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Back in 2007, someone kept making bomb threats to a high school in Washington state. Local police struggled to find the culprit, and they turned to the FBI for help. Federal agents got their man, actually a 15-year-old boy, after they tricked him into clicking on a fake Associated Press story where they had planted spyware to locate him. Their deception remained a secret for seven years. But when it finally came to light last year, the AP protested and demanded more information about the ruse. Karen Kaiser is general counsel at the AP.

KAREN KAISER: We believe it's critically important that the public understand why something like this happened, how many times it's happened before, and if the FBI is impersonating the media or anyone else for that matter, still to this day.

JOHNSON: Kaiser says she's still waiting for answers. The FBI told her it may take 649 days to search its files. That's why the AP and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are suing the bureau. The new case accuses federal authorities of failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and wrongfully withholding records.

Last year, FBI director James Comey said the Bureau sometimes uses deception to catch crooks but that his agents act legally and responsibly. Comey said the rules have changed since 2007, when that school in Lacey, Wash. was under siege from bomb threats. Today, he said, the FBI requires higher-level approval for its agents to masquerade as reporters and plant spyware. That's little comfort to Katie Townsend. Townsend is litigation director for the Reporters Committee, one of the groups suing the FBI for records about its impersonation of journalists.

KATIE TOWNSEND: Not only does it undermine the credibility and the independence of the news organizations themselves, but it jeopardizes the people's ability, the public's ability to trust those news organizations in the same way.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.