Washington (AFP) - The FBI has come under fire from media organizations following disclosures that it created a fake news website to track down a suspect in a bomb threat case.
Documents revealed the FBI created a fake Associated Press news article that appeared to be in the Seattle Times, to trick the suspect to install malware that would reveal his location.
The incident dates back to 2007, but the documents surfaced this week after a security research for the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted a link to the case file on Monday.
"The FBI impersonating the press is just as irresponsible as the CIA running fake immunization programs. Completely unacceptable," said ACLU researcher Christopher Soghoian in revealing the documents.
The Associated Press and Seattle Times also reacted angrily to the news.
"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," said Paul Colford, a spokesman for the news agency, said in a statement to AFP.
"This ploy violated AP's name and undermined AP's credibility."
Seattle Times editor Kathy Best said the newspaper was "outraged" by the incident.
"Not only does that cross a line, it erases it," she said in a statement in the daily.
The newspaper's editorial board went further on Tuesday, saying the FBI action is an affront to a free press.
"The laudable end -- conviction of a student making school bomb threats -- does not justify the government's outrageous disregard of the role of the press in a free society," the editorial said.
"In fact, it utterly undermines that role at a time when media companies are struggling to remain strong in the face of government abuses over the last two presidential administrations."
The documents revealed that the FBI, in a bid to locate the suspect in a bomb threat suspect at a Seattle area high school, sent a link to the article to the suspect's MySpace account.
Because the article was about the suspect, FBI agents believed he would click on the link, and by doing so install the malware to allow the agency to locate him.
- 'Rare circumstances' -
The FBI said it did not use the name of the Seattle Times, even though the fake website resembled that of the newspaper.
In a statement sent to AFP Wednesday, FBI agent Frank Montoya said, :Every effort we made in this investigation had the goal of preventing a tragic event like what happened at Marysville and Seattle Pacific University."
He added that this technique is used "in very rare circumstances and only when there is sufficient reason to believe it could be successful in resolving a threat. We were fortunate that information provided by the public gave us the opportunity to step in to a potentially dangerous situation before it was too late."
Trevor Timm at the Freedom of the Press Foundation said the case raises questions about how frequently these techniques have been employed.
"How often have US law enforcement agencies impersonated news organizations to send malware to suspects?" Timm said in a blog post.
"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."