Americans of every stripe should echo The Associated Press’ recent demand that the Federal Bureau of Investigation never present its agents as journalists again.
This appeal comes after the FBI acknowledged two weeks ago that one of its agents posed as an AP reporter to snare a teenager making bomb threats against a Thurston County high school in 2007.
FBI Director James B. Comey argued in a Nov. 7 letter to The New York Times that, when such tactics are employed, they are done “reasonably and legally,” and are subject to close court supervision.
Journalists disagree, and so should anyone who values the fundamental freedoms of American life. If sources think that journalists are cooperating with law enforcement, or actually are law-enforcement officers, those sources with important information to tell would not trust reporters. Stories would not be shared, investigated, published. The watchdog would not be as strong.
The AP’s demand is grounded in the constitutional guarantee that the press be free from any government interference. More fundamentally, that First Amendment aegis preserves the freedom to share ideas and convey information vital to a functioning republic.
By impersonating journalists, the FBI directly infringes upon the freedoms the Founding Fathers explicitly safeguarded in the Bill of Rights.
And instead of ensuring the safety of Americans, the secretive intelligence agency could be endangering the lives of America’s truth-tellers. Such impersonations could imperil the safety of journalists if violent sources, at home and abroad, suspect they are cops instead.
Some of America’s enemies believe that American intelligence operatives often pose as reporters to affect credible and free-ranging cover identities. By using this ruse at home, the FBI legitimizes these suspicions abroad. And American journalists might be endangered because of it.
Think of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was branded a “spy-journalist” by an al-Qaida group in Pakistan and beheaded in 2002. Or American freelance video journalist James Foley, who was beheaded just three months ago. His Islamic State killers later claimed Foley was a spy.
No U.S. agency – whether the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, or some other entity so shrouded in secrecy that we don’t know it exists – should ever allow its agents to masquerade as news gatherers.
This deception undermines core American principles. It should stop.