Whether it’s the CIA staging a phony polio vaccination scheme in Pakistan or paid FBI informants working subterfuge in New York and California mosques, government agents frequently misappropriate identities to conduct undercover stings. Unfortunately, this duplicity jeopardizes the safety and credibility of those impersonated and has a chilling effect on innocent bystanders once the feds are done playing dress up. The latest victim is the Associated Press, who along with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is suing the FBI for impersonating “an employee of the Associated Press” as part of an operation to arrest a 15 year old believed to be making bomb threats at a school in Olympia, Washington. According to the suit, the FBI in 2007 had created and sent the teen a bogus Seattle Times article. The link, which directed the suspect to an Associated Press article called “Bomb threat at high school downplayed by local police department,” was hosted on an FBI computer, and, when clicked, secretly revealed the suspect’s location and IP address. The sting, which was later confirmed by FBI Director James Comey, eventually led to the suspect’s arrest. “How the FBI misappropriated the trusted name of the Associated Press doubles our concern and outrage, expressed earlier to Attorney General Eric Holder, about how the agency’s unacceptable tactics undermine AP and the vital distinction between the government and the press,” Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP said in a statement after the revelations were first revealed.
All too often law enforcement agents posing as humanitarian workers or journalists as part of an undercover investigation fail to grasp the serious consequences this fraud has on the people and organizations they impersonate. Not only do these undercover operations undermine their legitimacy but they also hurt the people those actors are trying to serve. One of the more egregious examples involves the expulsion of Save the Children from Pakistan after the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in May 2011. A few months after the raid, it was revealed that the CIA had instructed a Pakistani doctor to set up a fake vaccination scheme in Abbottabad to gain entry to the house where it suspected bin Laden was living. After the hoax came to light, Pakistan forced out the charity, despite the country’s urgent need for vaccinations. To many Pakistanis, the ruse seemingly provided proof for a widely believed misconception that vaccinations are a Western conspiracy to poison or sterilize Muslims. For many, law enforcements’ dirty tricks happen closer to home. In New York and California, reports of paid FBI informants, often ex-convicts, going undercover in mosques to stir up trouble and collect personal information of Muslim-Americans are widespread. In one instance in California, an FBI informant said his handlers encouraged him to have sexual relations with Muslim women if it meant getting better intelligence. Ironically, mosque officials called the FBI when the same undercover agent began talking about blowing up buildings.
But the spying had a chilling effect on regular mosque-goers, many of whom decreased their attendance and felt uneasy speaking with fellow worshippers inside the mosque. One can imagine feeling as if their place of worship had been violated for a spurious purpose. “They got a guy, a bona fide criminal, and obviously trained him and sent him to infiltrate mosques,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. “The community feels betrayed,” he added. While undercover police work is not likely to go away anytime soon, law enforcement should be more judicious in how and when the employ these tactics. They should recognize that every time they assume the appearance of a charity or news organization, they jeopardize these groups’ reputation and independence, and make doing their legitimate work that much harder. And that’s no child’s play. More on the unethical use of informants: Manufacturing Terrorism: It’s Fun! It Works! And Just About Anybody Can Do It! Anatomy of an FBI Terror Plot