Watchdog: Telecoms let FBI read Americans' phone records

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2010 

WASHINGTON — For years, FBI agents and employees of telecom companies treated Americans' telephone records so cavalierly that one senior FBI counter-terrorism official said getting access to them was as easy as "having an ATM in your living room," according to a watchdog report made public Wednesday.

At times, telecom employees invited FBI personnel to view the phone records on their computer screens without any of the required paperwork or approvals, the Justice Department's Inspector General Glenn Fine found.

Between 2003 and 2006, one FBI unit set up to analyze telephone records issued 722 so-called "exigent letters" to three unidentified service providers.

In the letters, FBI agents attested to the urgent nature of the investigation and pledged to follow up with prosecutor-approved subpoenas later. The letters were issued without court oversight.

"We found that many FBI supervisors and employees issued or approved these exigent letters even though the letters on their face contained statements that were inaccurate, such as that a grand jury subpoena had already been submitted," the report said.

The report is the inspector general's third slamming the bureau's handling of requests for Americans' personal records.

When the inspector general's investigators asked FBI officials about the abuses "they gave a variety of unpersuasive excuses, contending either that they thought someone else had reviewed or approved the letters or that they had inherited the practice and were not in a position to change it," the report said

Describing it a "widespread failure" by FBI officials at all levels, Fine called on the FBI to determine whether bureau officials should be punished for the abuses.

"For FBI officials and employees to unquestioningly issue hundreds of these improper and inaccurate letters over a 3-and-a-half year period is both surprising and troubling," the report said.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, who didn't find out about the abuses until 2006, told senators Wednesday that the bureau had since stopped the practices and would be determining whether or not to punish employees.

The practice started soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Fine's investigators concluded that the use of the letters was an improper way to circumvent the more formal national security letters process, which requires approval from supervisors.

One FBI official told the inspector general that the unit that issued the letters was supposed to develop a "phone database on steroids" that would identify "good" versus "bad" numbers that could be useful in terrorism investigations.

To help gather this information, the bureau entered into contracts with three telecom companies. Employees from the companies worked in the bureau's offices alongside agents to analyze telephone records, which included names, addresses, length of service and billing information.

But for much of the time, there was no formal policy outlining when exigent letters could be issued.

FBI officials acknowledged that the letters weren't always issued because of emergency or life-or-death situations. In some cases, the records were connected to bomb threats, but in others they were related to non-emergency matters such as media leak investigations.

Managers also admitted that they didn't read the letters closely when they signed them and didn't know that they were expected to follow up with a subpoena.

"None of these FBI requests for telephone records — either the exigent letters or other informal requests — was accompanied by documentation explaining the authority for the requests," the report said.

In some cases, FBI agents didn't even bother with the letters and simply asked in emails or post-it notes for records related to more than 3,500 telephone numbers.

They also began an informal practice known as "sneak peeks" in which they obtained records — often on a weekly basis — from the company's database without any formal request. FBI officials estimated that they requested sneak peeks hundreds of times.

Glenn Rogers, the unit's chief at the time, told investigators that he saw no problem with the practice because it was "his understanding that there was no expectation of privacy in telephone records because the 'numbers belong to the phone companies.'"

Some numbers were later uploaded to FBI databases and used to analyze what the bureau called a "community of interest." The definition of the community of interest was redacted from the report, making it difficult to discern whose records were reviewed and what the FBI did as a result.

Since the inspector general's investigation, the FBI has concluded that records for hundreds of telephone numbers must be purged from the bureau's database because there was no national security investigation that justified obtaining them.

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