The FBI publicly released on October 5 its guidelines for impersonating journalists and documentary filmmakers as part of its covert activities and operations. This was made possible after the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) due to the agency’s failure to respond to a request for information concerning the impersonation of documentarians. Included in these guidelines is the procedure FBI employees must follow to obtain approval for impersonating a member of the news media, which includes submitting an application to the Undercover Review Committee at FBI headquarters and receiving consent from the FBI Deputy Director, who must first consult with the Deputy Attorney General. The guidelines do not, however, outline the criteria that the Deputy Director and Deputy Attorney General consider when approving these requests.
“The FBI’s impersonation of journalists and filmmakers is of great concern to the press freedom community,” said Margaux Ewen, Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “Any uncertainty regarding a journalist or filmmaker’s identity and motives for investigation can seriously hinder the media’s news-gathering abilities, and can endanger those working among hostile actors, who may use this program as an excuse to target or strong-arm journalists.”
Along with RCFP’s legal arguments in its lawsuit, two documentary filmmakers—David Byars and Abby Ellis— submitted signed affidavits stating the agency’s impersonation schemes have made their jobs more difficult. While the FBI has impersonated documentary filmmakers and journalists undercover for decades, these documents outline never-before-seen specifics of the agency’s guidelines. Attention to this controversial practice intensified in 2014 when then-FBI Director James Comey revealed an agent had posed as an Associated Press reporter years prior during a criminal investigation. It remains unknown how often the agency has relied on this tactic to elicit information.
The US ranks 45th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index after falling 2 places in the last year.