FBI Breaks the Law to Justify Breaking the Law to Spy On Citizens In Warrantless Fishing Expeditions

Brian Zick

Because intimidating phone company executives is just so much easier than doing a lotta tedious paperwork. "In practice, if you have already got the records, the incentive to do the paperwork is reduced," the senior FBI official said. The FBI is apparently run by Dilbert's Pointy-Haired Boss. R. Jeffrey Smith and John Solomon for WaPo report that FBI counterterrorism officials continued to use flawed procedures to obtain thousands of U.S. telephone records during a two-year period when bureau lawyers and managers were expressing escalating concerns about the practice, according to senior FBI and Justice Department officials and documents. Under pressure to provide a stronger legal footing, counterterrorism agents last year wrote new letters to phone companies demanding the information the bureau already possessed. At least one senior FBI headquarters official -- whom the bureau declined to name -- signed these "national security letters" without including the required proof that the letters were linked to FBI counterterrorism or espionage investigations, an FBI official said. The flawed procedures involved the use of emergency demands for records, called "exigent circumstance" letters, which contained false or undocumented claims. They also included national security letters that were issued without FBI rules being followed. Both types of request were served on three phone companies. (…) A March 9 report by Fine bluntly stated that the FBI's use of the exigency letters "circumvented" the law that governs the FBI's access to personal information about U.S. residents. The exigency letters, created by the FBI's New York office after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, told telephone providers that the FBI needed information immediately and would follow up with subpoenas later. There is no basis in the law to compel phone companies to turn over information using such letters, Fine found, and in many cases, agents never followed up with the promised subpoenas, he said. But Fine's report made no mention of the FBI's subsequent efforts to legitimize those actions with improperly prepared national security letters last year. (…) Ann Beeson, an attorney for the ACLU who has sued the FBI in an effort to block some of its data requests, said that if the agency cannot prove a link between the letters and an ongoing investigation, its requests were "a total fishing expedition."

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