The Associated Press has sued the FBI for failing to deliver documents regarding a 2007 case in which the agency used the AP’s name to trick a suspect into installing spyware delivered through a bogus news article.
Filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in D.C., the suit seeks documents requested in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiry that started more than nine months ago when details emerged about the FBI’s covert installation of surveillance software on a teenage suspect’s computer.
Although the FBI has publicly admitted to masquerading as news media in order to execute the operation, FOIA requests for further details filed last year by the AP and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a journalism advocacy group, have so far gone unfulfilled.
“We cannot overstate how damaging it is for federal agents to pose as journalists,” Katie Townsend, litigation director for the RCFP, said in a statement. “This practice undermines the credibility of the independent news media, and should not be tolerated.”
Evidence surfaced last year revealing investigators had sent a link to a social media account operated by an individual believed to be responsible for a rash of bomb threats in Seattle. The message instructed the recipient to click a link in order to view a purported AP dispatch supposedly published by The Seattle Times with the headline, “Bomb threat at high school downplayed by local police department.”
However, the link actually pointed towards spyware that was surreptitiously installed on the suspect’s computer. The Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier, or CIPAV, gave the FBI details about the infected machine that were used to identify and apprehend a high school student, who subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days in juvenile detention.
“That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and FBI guidelines at the time,” FBI Director James Comey said last year. “Today, the use of such an unusual technique would probably require higher-level approvals than in 2007, but it would still be lawful and, in a rare case, appropriate.”
But nearly a year after details of the operation emerge, attorneys for AP and RCFP say federal officials have failed to heed follow-up requests for further information. The groups had requested an accounting for the number of times law enforcement had “impersonated media organizations or generated media-style material” to install spyware since 2000, as well as any training material and policy briefings concerning those campaigns.
According to the lawsuit, the FBI said fulfilling the FOIA request could take upwards of 649 days.
The public has a “strong, compelling interest” in knowing more about the tactic, yet “the FBI seems determined to withhold that information,” Ms. Townsend said.
“We have been left with no choice but to look to the court for relief,” she said.
The lawsuit asks a District Court judge to compel investigators to conduct a search for all records responsive to the FOIA requests and to immediately disclose all findings in their entirety.