INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists is asking FBI Director Louis Freeh today to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary action against agents in Idaho who posed as reporters.
“Morally and legally what the FBI did was just plain wrong,” wrote Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, president of the nation’s largest journalism organization and an assistant city editor at The Indianapolis Star.
The agents were “uncovered” by real journalists covering the civil trial of Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler.
According to news accounts, Kootenai County Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger admitted he initially directed seven agents to obtain media passes so they could blend in better with photographers covering the trial. The credentials apparently were yanked after area reporters complained to the sheriff.
“This decision also put the reporters covering the trial at risk,” Niederpruem wrote. “Should the crowd have uncovered the FBI scam, undoubtedly it would have been taken out on the working press - people who were there covering a trial and using legitimate credentials.”
The Idaho case is similar to one the Society wrote a letter against in 1996. In that case, an FBI informer posed as a newspaper reporter and attempted to run a sting operation on a Gypsy leader being investigated for witness intimidation.
G. Kelly Hawes, former SPJ board president, wrote a letter to FBI Director Louis Freeh asking him to “take the steps necessary to forbid such practices in the future.”
“In 1996 we asked you to take action for a similar abuse,” Niederpruem said. “Apparently, the Bureau didn’t get the message then - and didn’t adjust its own policies to avoid repeating history.”
The Society is asking for a swift response from the appropriate authorities.
For the complete news story, see The Associated Press via The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
A copy of the letter sent to Freeh, President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno from the Society can be found here. Additionally, a copy of a letter sent to Freeh by the Inland Northwest Chapter can be found here.
Friday, Sept. 1, 2000
To President Bill Clinton, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno:
Recent news events in Idaho have captured our attention.
It is simply wrong for FBI agents to pose as reporters. You have a number of legally acceptable enforcement tools at your disposal for surveillance. Pretending to be a reporter is not something that should be in your toolbox.
The reasons for our objections are numerous, and we speak for a large crowd. The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s largest journalism organization, representing not only working journalists - print, online and broadcast - but also academics, high school and college students, public relations professionals, media attorneys and government officials.
Our members adhere to a common goal - making sure that we have an ethical and credible group of professionals reporting the news.
You took that away from us this week when agents abused their authority to go undercover.
This decision also put the reporters covering this trial at risk. Should the crowd have uncovered the FBI scam, undoubtedly it would have been taken out on the working press - people who were there covering a trial and using legitimate credentials.
Our professionals are not armed. Yours are.
You’re also fueling a very strong anti-government sentiment that already exists in this country - and with a potentially volatile crowd of individuals.
Morally and legally what the FBI did in Idaho was just plain wrong.
Such abuses have occurred before, and SPJ has gone on the record before opposing these actions. In 1996, we asked you to take action for a similar abuse. Apparently, the Bureau didn’t get the message then - and didn’t adjust its own policies to avoid repeating history.
In this instance, we are asking for discipinlary action to be taken against the person or persons who authorized this action. We trust you will take appropriate steps.
Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, SPJ national board president
Letter to FBI Director Freeh from the Inland Northwest Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists regarding the practice of undercover FBI agents posing as reporters.
Dear Director Freeh:
The Inland Northwest Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is profoundly disturbed by the recent behavior by several of your agents.
As you know, the Rev. Richard Butler was recently put on trial in Coeur d'Alenc, Idaho, for allegedly fostering unlawful behavior at the nearby Aryan Nations compound Local state and national law enforcement were called on to provide security.
A number of FBI agents chose to undertake surveillance in the guise of photographers. When spotted by a sergeant with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office, they elected _at his suggestion_ to accept press credentials as a way of maintaining their cover.
In so doing, they put in jeopardy the safety of the numerous members of the legitimate press who were covenug the trial. This was a very volatile venue. Members of the Aryan Nations, as well as other residents of North Idaho, already regard the FBI with suspicion. Many have not forgotten the events at Ruby Ridge.
The actions of your agents put members of the press at risk. More permanently, they compromised the trust between the press and the public that is essential to everyday reporting.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time FBI agents in this area have used the press as cover. This subterfuge must stop. Were members of the press to suggest they were law enforcement officials, they would be swiftly charged with a felony.
Some sanctions should be imposed on those who participated in this masquerade. And your office should issue a directive proscribing any further use of press credentials or other representations as a way to cloak agent activities.