SEATTLE — The Associated Press and The Seattle Times are objecting after learning that the FBI created a fake news story and website using their names to catch a bomb threat suspect in 2007.
Police in suburban Lacey, near Olympia, sought the FBI’s help as repeated bomb threats prompted a week of evacuations and closures at Timberline High School in June 2007.
After police interviews of potential suspects came up empty, the agency obtained a warrant from a federal magistrate judge to send a “communication” to a social media account associated with the bomb threats, with the idea of tricking the suspect into revealing his location, according to documents obtained by the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The “communication,” which contained a software tool known as a “computer and Internet Protocol address verifier,” turned out to be a link to a phony AP story about the bomb threats posted on a fake Seattle Times webpage. The 15-year-old suspect clicked on the link, revealing his computer’s location and Internet address, and helping agents confirm his identity.
The boy was arrested.
“Every effort we made in this investigation had the goal of preventing a tragic event like what happened at Marysville and Seattle Pacific University,” said Frank Montoya Jr., the FBI’s special agent in charge in Seattle, referring to two local school shootings this year. “We identified a specific subject of an investigation and used a technique that we deemed would be effective in preventing a possible act of violence in a school setting. 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.”
AP spokesman Paul Colford said Tuesday the FBI’s “ploy violated AP’s name and undermined AP’s credibility.”
“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,” Colford said in a statement.
Seattle Times Editor Kathy Best said the newspaper was outraged.
“Not only does that cross a line, it erases it,” she said. “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. The FBI’s actions, taken without our knowledge, traded on our reputation and put it at peril.
“We hope that this mistake in judgment by local federal law enforcement leaders was a one-time aberration and not a symptom of a deeper lack of respect for the role of a free press in society. It cannot be repeated.”
The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
“In order to safeguard the FBI’s ability to effectively detect, disrupt, and dismantle threats to the public, we must be judicious in how we discuss investigative techniques,” Seattle FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich said in an email.
The documents revealing the deception were publicized Monday on Twitter by Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. They included a copy of the fake news story, headlined “Bomb threat at high school downplayed by local police department.”