Agents working out of the FBI’s Seattle office resorted to some chicanery in their attempts to reel in a suspect in a bomb threat case, and it has a Washington newspaper and the Associated Press in an uproar. It seems that the agents created a sham news story, complete with an AP byline, and posted it on a web page dressed up to look like official content from the online edition of the Seattle Times. A link to this dummy news page was sent to the suspect’s Myspace account. When the suspect tried to access the link, presumably thinking it would bring up a legit story featured in the news publication, software embedded in the mockup allowed the FBI access to information related to the suspect’s location and other internet protocols.
For those reading that did a doubletake at the phrase “Myspace account,” know that the events related to this case went down in 2007. The FBI arrested the suspect, a juvenile that had made repeated threats to Timberline High School in Lacey, Washington, in June of that year. He was eventually tried and convicted. However, as was reported in the Guardian today, the Seattle Times only learned of the ruse recently, after the civil liberties watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) disseminated documents that detailed the law enforcement agency’s line-crossing pastiche. Actually, officials at the paper only caught wind of the program from a tweet by Christopher Sogohian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, that referenced the EFF’s findings.
The revelation, even seven years later, did not sit well with Kathy Best, editor at the Seattle Times. “We are outraged that the FBI, with the apparent assistance of the U.S. attorney’s office, misappropriated the name of the Seattle Times to secretly install spyware on the computer of a crime suspect,” she said.
Cynicism aside as to how well the fourth estate performs even without the federal government undercutting its integrity, the argument appears to be that the antics perpetrated by the FBI’s Seattle field office sets a dangerous precedent that corrodes the public’s trust in those from whom they get their news. As Best put in statements reprinted in the Times, “Our reputation and our ability to do our job as a government watchdog are based on trust. Nothing is more fundamental to that trust than our independence — from law enforcement, from government, from corporations and from all other special interests.” Best stated, “The FBI’s actions, taken without our knowledge, traded on our reputation and put it at peril.”
Paul Colford, who directs the media relations arm of the Associated Press, expressed similar consternation. “We are extremely concerned and find it unacceptable that the FBI misappropriated the name of The Associated Press and published a false story attributed to AP…This ploy violated AP’s name and undermined AP’s credibility,” Colford said.
The FBI sees it differently, pointing out that their “ploy” resulted in the arrest and conviction of a potentially deadly criminal and, more importantly, prevented a national tragedy. Given the prevalence of violence on the campuses of American schools, and the gruesome imagery afforded the public’s consciousness by the horrors surrounding events like those that occurred at the Boston Marathon in April of last year, putting a stop to someone threatening to blow up a school is perhaps deserving of that oft-used expression, “by any means necessary.”
“Use of that type of technique happens in very rare circumstances and only when there is sufficient reason to believe it could be successful in resolving a threat,” said Frank Montoya Jr., special agent in charge of the Seattle FBI, in defense of the phony news story tactic. Ayn Dietrich-Williams, an FBI spokesperson, elaborated by noting that the FBI had not used an actual Seattle Times or AP article, but had only mimicked the “style” and credentials “common in reporting and online media.”
That the FBI got their man appears to be the only thing supporting their deferring to such questionable methods of crime prevention. That is, they did it because it worked. To those that might mutter, “Well, that’s the price we pay for keeping the world safe,” it might be asked why the FBI didn’t enlist the help of either the Times or the AP directly or, better yet, why the FBI couldn’t have used a different costume to disguise their malware-laden link.
The relevant warrant, drafted and approved in cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, indicated that some kind of “communication” would be used to transfer the malware onto the suspect’s computer. It did not, however, suggest that the “communication” would take the form of a bunk news story ostensibly published online by a real newspaper.