Most undercover investigations never become public, but when they do, they can prove controversial. This month, James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I., was forced to defend the bureau’s tactics after it was disclosed that an agent had posed as an Associated Press reporter in 2007 in trying to identify the source of bomb threats at a Lacey, Wash., high school. Responding to criticism from news media advocates, Mr. Comey wrote in a letter to The New York Times that “every undercover operation involves ‘deception,’ which has long been a critical tool in fighting crime.”
Just weeks before, the Drug Enforcement Administration stoked controversy after disclosures that an undercover agent had created a fake Facebook page from the photos of a young woman in Watertown, N.Y. — without her knowledge — to lure drug suspects.
And in what became a major political scandal for the Obama administration, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed guns to slip into Mexico in 2011 in an undercover operation known as Fast and Furious.
In response to that episode, the Justice Department issued new guidelines to prosecutors last year designed to tighten oversight of undercover operations and other “sensitive” investigative techniques, officials said. Before prosecutors approve such tactics, the previously undisclosed guidelines require that they consider whether an operation identifies a “clearly defined” objective, whether it is truly necessary, whether it targets “significant criminal actors or entities,” and other factors, the officials said.
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