By Tom A. Peter
The Federal Bureau of Investigation used false terrorism emergencies to illegally collect more than 2,000 phone records between 2002 and 2006. A series of e-mails and memos obtained by The Washington Post details how FBI officials violated their own procedures and strained their communication analysis unit with non-urgent requests. In many instances, approval was granted after records had been collected to justify the FBI’s actions.
Later this month, the Justice Department is expected to issue a report that will find the FBI violated regulations many times with its terrorism-related phone record requests. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III did not know about the problems until late 2006 or early 2007 when they were brought to light by an inspector general investigation, reports the Associated Press.
The memos do not reveal whose phone records were collected by the FBI, but Bureau officials say that nearly all instances were related to terrorism cases. They added that agents were working under the stress of trying to stop potential terror attacks and did not intentionally violate the law.
The FBI, which previously admitted to illegally collecting phone records in 2007, has begun to publicly acknowledge this latest phone record collection abuse. In an interview with The Washington Post, Valerie Caproni, general counsel for the FBI, said that the bureau had violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in collecting the 2,000 phone records in question.
"We should have stopped those requests from being made that way," she said. The after-the-fact approvals were a "good-hearted but not well-thought-out" solution to put phone carriers at ease, she said. In true emergencies, Caproni said, agents always had the legal right to get phone records, and lawyers have now concluded there was no need for the after-the-fact approval process. "What this turned out to be was a self-inflicted wound," she said.
The FBI never obtained the content of telephone conversations through the program. Additionally, the Bureau has already taken steps to ensure that nothing similar will happen again, FBI spokesman Michael Kortan told Reuters. He added that no one in the FBI had used these methods to for “reasons other than a legitimate investigative interest.”
Previously, FBI agents required a grand jury subpoena or a “national security letter” related to a terrorism or espionage case to collect phone records. However, after Sept. 11, the Patriot Act loosened the restrictions required to obtain phone records. Lower-level FBI officials were given the authority to request phone records, but the Press Trust of India reports that the program soon expanded beyond the intent of the loosened restrictions with phone records possibly unrelated to terrorism cases being collected by the FBI.
Main Justice, a news agency devoted to covering the Department of Justice, reports that although this is not the first time the FBI’s improper collection of phone records has come to light, the e-mails and memos collected by The Post reveal the internal controversy behind the program.