By Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The FBI did not break rules in place in 2007 when it impersonated a journalist to send a teenage bomb-threat suspect a computer link to a fake news article that concealed location tracking software, a government watchdog said on Thursday.
But the undercover activity would only be permissible today with a series of high-ranking approvals stipulated in interim policy guidelines enacted in June this year, the Department of Justice's office of the inspector general found.
The case gained attention in 2014 when documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights group, revealed the FBI had posed as an Associated Press editor and sent a link to a spoofed article to the suspect's MySpace account.
By clicking the link, the 15-year-old suspect installed software that sent location data to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents. Over one week in June 2007, the student emailed bomb threats to employees at his Timberline High School in Lacey, Washington. The suspect was later arrested and pleaded guilty in July 2007 to making the threats.
Media organizations and digital freedom activists condemned the tactics used by the FBI, prompting FBI Director James Comey to defend them in a 2014 New York Times op-ed as "proper and appropriate under Justice Department and F.B.I. guidelines at the time."
The department's watchdog agreed, concluding in its report published on Thursday that the 2007 policies "did not prohibit agents from impersonating journalists or from posing as a member of a news organization, nor was there any requirement that agents seek special approval to engage in such undercover activities."
The Associated Press "is deeply disappointed" by the watchdog's findings, said Paul Colford, vice president and director of media relations.
"Such action compromises the ability of a free press to gather the news safely and effectively and raises serious constitutional concerns," Colford said in a statement.
The watchdog's report recommended that the FBI update its undercover policies to codify the June 2016 interim guidelines. It also said the FBI should further consider what level of review is required before an agent uses the name of third-party organizations without their knowledge or consent.
Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union who helped discover the FBI's impersonation, said the report "confirms that the FBI kept the court in the dark regarding the most problematic aspect of this investigation: the impersonation of the news media by the government."
Soghoian added: "This is a huge problem, as courts cannot perform oversight over government tactics that are hidden from them."
(Reporting by Dustin Volz; editing by Grant McCool)