The question is not whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation is impersonating investigative reporters — but how many.
For more than a decade the FBI has impersonated documentary filmmakers but the extent of the Bureau’s abuse of the First Amendment is still unknown.
Despite legal attempts to prevent law enforcement from posing as investigative journalists, the revelations keep on coming.
The cumulative impact is a break down in trust between bone fide doc crews and those willing to speak truth to power on camera — and even a threat to life.
One of the first FBI surveillance operations to be uncovered was that of Ernest Withers, a press photographer and chronicler of the civil rights movement who had spent nearly two decades as a paid FBI informant.
That a journalist would be acting for the FBI proved a shock to many but was just the tip of the iceberg.
No less insidious a practice is the FBI’s tactic of impersonating documentary filmmakers in criminal investigations.
The most egregious of these occurred in 2007 but were only revealed in 2014 when an FBI agent pretending to be an editor for The Associated Press encouraged a suspect of a bomb threat to click on links to fake news article and related photographs. When the suspect clicked the link, he activated a computer program embedded within them that revealed his location to the FBI.
Then in 2014, in an incident that came to light in 2017, FBI agents posed as a documentary film crew in order to gather information and conduct on-camera interviews of individuals present at an armed standoff between the federal Bureau of Land Management and supporters of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy.
Documentary filmmakers are unleashing cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality to bring their projects to life. Gain insights into the making of these groundbreaking projects with these articles extracted from the NAB Amplify archives:
- Crossing the Line: How the “Roadrunner” Documentary Created an Ethics Firestorm
- I’ll Be Your Mirror: Reflection and Refraction in “The Velvet Underground”
- “Navalny:” When Your Documentary Ends Up As a Spy Thriller
- Restored and Reborn: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
- It WAS a Long and Winding Road: Producing Peter Jackson’s Epic Documentary “The Beatles: Get Back”
According to the International Documentary Association, to make the ruse as believable as possible, the FBI created professional credentials, websites and business cards for a fake documentary film company — “Longbow Productions” — deployed professional cameras, lights and sound equipment, and even gave their fake documentary film a working title: America Reloaded.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has been at the forefront of legal efforts to obtain more information about the FBI’s practice of impersonating members of the media — a practice the Reporters Committee has vocally criticized as an affront to the First Amendment.
It has used a series of federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to uncover more FBI fake media activity — but the full extent is alarmingly still secret.
In defending its position, the FBI argues that publicly disclosing how frequently FBI agents impersonate documentary filmmakers “would allow criminals to judge whether they should completely avoid any contacts with documentary film crews, rendering the investigative technique ineffective.”
Yet the knowledge that the FBI is posing as journalists, however rare these incidents may be, is already having an impact on how would-be whistle blowers view legitimate reporters. It is undermining their credibility.
“The specter of FBI agents pretending to be documentary filmmakers has a chilling effect on speech to real documentary filmmakers, hampering their ability to gather information and tell important stories,” says the IDA. “As the FBI itself acknowledged, sources and subjects will undoubtedly be less willing to speak candidly to documentary filmmakers, both on- and off-camera, if they think those filmmakers are secretly working for the government.”
Especially troubling is the risk to safety of documentary film teams that FBI impersonation poses. As the IDA points out, independent documentary filmmakers often work alone, or on small teams, meeting interview subjects in remote or unfamiliar locations. Given the environments in which many documentarians work, a subject’s false belief that a filmmaker is an undercover FBI agent could put that filmmaker in danger.
To learn more about the Reporters Committee’s ongoing FOIA litigation efforts to obtain records related to the FBI’s practice of impersonating members of the media, including documentary filmmakers, visit the Reporters Committee’s website at www.rcfp.org.