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The AP's General Counsel 'Outraged' Over FBI's Fake News Story

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on November 04, 2014 9:59 AM

In-house attorneys have a lot of worrying to do, and they write a lot of letters. But last week, Karen Kasier, general counsel for The Associated Press, found herself writing a letter asking the Justice Department why it impersonated the AP and disseminated a fake news story.

The story actually begins seven years ago when the FBI was trying to figure out who owned a MySpace account (yes, this was practically the Stone Age) that was sending bomb threats to a high school in Washington state. Using a bit of trickery, the FBI created a fake news article, written by "the Associated Press," and sent a link to the article to the MySpace account. The website contained a bit of malware that would allow the FBI to trace the computer.

Sure, This Is The Seattle Times. Yeah, That's the Ticket.

We know all this thanks to a bunch of tweets from the ACLU's principal technologist, Christopher Soghoian. This prompted the AP and The Seattle Times, whose website was impersonated, to get a little upset. "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," said Kathy Best, the Times' editor.

The AP, of course, did the Times one better and sent a letter to Attorney General (for now) Eric Holder demanding answers. The FBI "both misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press and created a situation where our credibility could have been undermined on a large scale," Kaiser said in her letter.

Kasier also notes that there are some constitutional problems. "Any attempt by the government, whatever its motives, to falsely label its own messages as coming from the news media serves to undermine the vital distinction between the government and the press in society," she wrote.

Now Accepting Applications for the Impersonating Department

Kaiser isn't the only one demanding answers. Last Thursday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- which is in part responsible for Justice Department oversight -- also sent a letter expressing his concern and asking for answers.

This is the third time in a month that federal law enforcement has been accused of impersonating someone else. Two weeks ago, we discussed Facebook sending a letter to the DEA kindly asking the agency to stop impersonating actual people. Last week, it was revealed that FBI agents conducted a search in Las Vegas by cutting Internet service and then pretending to be repairmen to fix the problem.

Even scarier, it appears from the documents obtained through FOIA that this wasn't a unilateral FBI action: They actually got a judge to sign off on it (flip to Page 61 for the start of the bit about the fake news story). Thankfully, Kaiser is a courageous GC who isn't taking this lying down.

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