The Federal Bureau of Investigation can, in certain circumstances, impersonate journalists in the course of undercover work, according to a report released this month by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. While somewhat controversial, the finding is not unexpected, coming at a time of increasing use of fake Internet personas by government authorities and intelligence agencies.
The existence of a Kremlin-sponsored “troll army” has received widespread media coverage. Particularly in the wake of recent high-profile data breaches, the U.S. public has been hearing much, in increasingly shrill tones, about alleged Russian influence operations targeting the presidential election. What Americans may have heard less about, though, is that similar operations are carried out by Western intelligence services.
In 2014, Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept reported on a program run by Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), an agency that has an extremely close working relationship with America’s National Security Agency (NSA). Documentation of this program included a “Disruption Operational Playbook” that discussed techniques with provocative names such as “Ruse Operation,” “False Flag Operation,” and “Infiltration Operation.” The PowerPoint presentation published by the Intercept along with the article gives tips on how to “discredit a target.” Such tactics, according to the document, are “Known in GCHQ as Online Covert Action.”
Perhaps tellingly, such activities appear to have a similar name across the pond. While the Justice Department’s new OIG report condones FBI impersonation of journalists (albeit with an added level of approval now needed for such operations), the report seems to suggest that such work is primarily done not by regular agents, but by specialists known as Online Covert Employees.
A 2014 NBC investigation into the use of such secret employees found that the FBI was using tactics that appeared quite similar to those outlined in the GCHQ document. Writing that the online program “raises questions about the FBI’s conduct in attempting to head off terrorist recruits and whether they incited them to actions they wouldn’t have otherwise taken,” the NBC report continued, claiming “undercover FBI agents or informants first identified or connected with the suspects via social media in at least four cases, using fake social media identities to engage them and, in (Basit Javid) Sheikh’s case, possibly engaging in ‘catfishing’ by luring him into a personal relationship with a phony online persona. Agents also created a ‘false-flag’ or ‘honeypot’ Facebook page to help snare him.”
A fake web page also played a role in the case that was the subject of the recent report from the FBI’s official oversight organization. In that case, a teenager making bomb threats to his high school was identified after clicking a link to a fake news story posted online by an FBI agent (or “Online Covert Employee”) posing as an employee of the Associated Press. And while the 2014 NBC story discussed some similar cases, it also pointed out that it’s unclear exactly how widespread FBI trolling is, or what forms it takes.
“The number of cases in which social media was a key investigative tool for the bureau could be higher,” the NBC reporters wrote, “but key parts of the proceedings in several cases have been sealed by federal judges out of concerns that revealing them could harm national security.”
It is indeed a possibility that revealing details of the FBI’s dirty tricks and methods of spreading disinformation and encouraging terrorist activity online via trolling and creating fake social media accounts and websites could harm national security. It seems just as likely, however, that the FBI is doing equal national security damage, if not more, simply by engaging in such operations in the first place.