How a school bomb-scare case sparked a media vs. FBI fight

asked 2018-01-03 15:01:42 -0600

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WASHINGTON (AP) - The young hacker was told in no uncertain terms: You are safe with me.

"I am not trying to find out your true identity," AP journalist Norm Weatherill assured the teenager in an online chat. "As a member of the Press, I would rather not know who you are as writers are not allowed to reveal their sources."

But Norm Weatherill was no reporter. He was FBI agent Norman Sanders Jr., and the whole conversation was a trap. Within hours, the 15-year-old hacker would be in handcuffs as police swarmed his house.

This image provided by the Lacey Police Department shows a June 14, 2007, photo of a computer taken from the bedroom of the Timberline High School bomb hoaxer in Lacey, Wash. In 2007, a teenager who was sending bomb threats to his high school in Washington state was finally caught by an FBI agent posing as a journalist. Local police raided the home hours after the FBI pinpointed his location using surveillance software. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the photo, taken by investigators, via a public records request. (Lacey Police Department via AP)

The 2007 bust would put an end to 10 days of nonstop bomb threats at the hacker's high school but would also raise a troubling question that is unanswered to this day: How often do FBI agents impersonate members of the news media?

The answer is important, says one expert who played a key role in revealing the bureau's subterfuge, because sources need to know journalists won't turn them in.

"Journalists play a very similar role to doctors in our society in that we trust them," Christopher Soghoian, former chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, said earlier this year. "And without trust they cannot operate."

Two weeks ago, a federal judge rejected a lawsuit from The Associated Press and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press demanding more detail from the FBI about the practice of posing as journalists. The two media organizations are appealing the ruling.

Meanwhile, the AP has drawn on hundreds of pages of records and interviews with a dozen people to piece together the story of how a computer-savvy sophomore's end-of-year prank escalated into a confrontation between the Justice Department and the media.


The first email said, "I will be blowing up your school."

Sent on Sunday, June 3, 2007, around 9 p.m. and addressed to several dozen teachers and administrators, it said four bombs were hidden throughout Timberline High, a 1,500-student school in an aging brick building in Lacey, a middle-class suburb of Olympia, Washington.

"We treated it like a real threat," then-Principal Dave Lehnis recalled. Administrators met with police that night and scoured the school with bomb-sniffing dogs. They found nothing.

The second threat arrived early Tuesday morning.

"It's now time to get serious," the email said , warning that five bombs were set to go off throughout the building. Students ...

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