Why is the FBI Falsifying AP Stories And Possibly Spoofing News Websites to Hack Suspects?


Trevor Timm


Buried in a three-year old Freedom of Information Act document, ACLU’s Chris Soghoian yesterday found a 2007 email from a Seattle FBI office that showed the FBI secretly falsified an Associated Press story, and possibly spoofed the Seattle Times website, in an attempt to get a suspect to click a malicious link so they could hack his computer.

After defending the practice yesterday amid outcry yesterday, the FBI has suddenly switched its story and now says it did not, in fact, use a fake Seattle Times link, but did make up an AP story. The Washington Post also reported tonight that the FBI is now “researching the policy on whether an agent could impersonate a news organization.” Here’s what the editor in chief of the Seattle Times told the AP this afternoon:

Kathy Best, editor of The Seattle Times, said in a statement that while the newspaper was “pleased to hear” the FBI did not use the paper’s name, it would have preferred to have found that information out earlier from the agency “instead of a defense of the tactic” Monday after the FBI was presented with internal agency documents showing a mocked up, phony Seattle Times email and Web page.

“Even if The Seattle Times name wasn’t used, the issues raised are the same. The FBI, in placing the name of The Associated Press on a phony story sent to a criminal suspect, crossed a line and undermined the credibility of journalists everywhere — including at The Times,” Best said.

We wholeheartedly agree.

If the FBI is impersonating news organizations in an attempt to send malware to suspects, it not only erodes reader trust in newspapers, but it is an affront to press freedom. This should be beyond the pale for the FBI—whether they did it in this case through a falsified AP story, a disguised Seattle Times link, or both.

The FBI and Justice Department owe some answers to news organizations and the public: How often have US law enforcement agencies impersonated news organizations to send malware to suspects? Since it worked in this 2007 case, has the number of times they’ve falsified news article and impersonated media websites to hack their targets increased in recent years? What other news organizations have they pretended to be? And how do they prevent innocent readers from clicking on these malicious links?

We call on the FBI and Justice Department to condemn this sleazy tactic and make sure the US government never again impersonates a news organization—whether it’s online or off. HaTTiP: https://freedom.press

Federal Freedom of Information Act

President Lyndon B. Johnson gives the 1964 State of the Union Address.

The Federal Freedom of Information Act, commonly referred to as FOIA,was signed on July 4, 1966, by an initially reluctant President Lyndon B. Johnson. It provides that any person has the right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records. Certain records are exempt from public disclosure.

A Brief History of FOIA

News industry leaders and congressional members from both political parties pressed for the landmark law, which took effect in 1967 and has been updated several times. After the Watergate scandal, Congress amended FOIA to force more compliance from government agencies, despite a veto by President Gerald Ford. Congress voted to override Ford’s veto.

The Freedom of Information Act was amended again in 1976 and 1986 to address which information is accessible to the public and to change request fees. With the Electronic Freedom of Information Act amendments of 1996, FOIA was amended to allow greater access to electronic government records. Certain types of records created after November 1996 must be made available electronically, and electronic reading rooms must be provided for public access to records. The law also extended the time an agency is given to respond to a request.

In 2001, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed an executive order restricting access to records of former presidents. This was later revoked by President Barack Obama’s administration. In 2002, the Intelligence Authorization Act amended FOIA to limit the ability of foreign governments, organizations or individual agents to request records from U.S. intelligence agencies.

The OPEN Government Act in 2007 amended certain fees for FOIA requests and established an Office of Government Information Services to review government agency compliance with FOIA requests. This act also redefined what it meant to be part of the “news media” and extended the allowable agency response time yet again.

In 2009, Obama issued an executive order mandating that almost all classified governmental material be automatically declassified after 25 years. Obama also signed an order stating only the president, vice president and federal agency heads could classify documents as “Top Secret.” Federal agencies retain the right to retroactively classify requested information that has not been previously disclosed if it is a matter of national security.

Congress is currently considering several bills that could further change the Freedom of Information Act.

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