FBI agents seeking phone records said to use 'startling' methods

FBI agents seeking telephone records demanded information from phone companies in a variety of “startling” and illicit methods, including e-mail and post-it notes, in an “egregious breakdown” of safeguards and oversight, the Justice Department’s inspector general reported Wednesday.

The long-awaited investigative report describes numerous lapses by FBI agents seeking material through more than 700 emergency letters to phone service providers between 2002 and 2006, many of which did not involve real urgency, officials said.

One FBI agent interviewed in connection with the probe said the process became so casual that “it [was] like having an ATM in your living room,” according to the report.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, told lawmakers that the process had ended in 2006 and that officials were reviewing the report to determine whether any bureau employees should be disciplined for the lapses. Mueller pointed out that the phone records did not cover the content of calls but rather toll information.

The report also describes three FBI media leak investigations in which agents sought and received information for phone numbers belonging to Washington Post and New York Times reporters without the required approval from the attorney general.

“This report examines in detail the flawed practices that the FBI used to obtain thousands of telephone records, and the accountability of FBI employees for these troubling practices,” Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said. “While the FBI has taken action to end the use of exigent letters and other informal requests for telephone records, we believe that the FBI and the Department need to examine this report carefully and take additional corrective action to ensure that the FBI obtains such records in accord with the law and Department of Justice policies.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said at a hearing Wednesday: “This was not a matter of technical violations. If one of us did something like this, we’d have to answer for it. This was authorized at high levels within the FBI and continued for years.”

Leahy and other Democrats, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), said the report underscored the need for changes to the USA Patriot Act, set to expire at the end of February. It gives the FBI authority to send demand letters to phone companies and financial institutions for information on Americans.

Source: Washington Post

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