FBI Acted Illegally, Says the Justice Department’s Inspector General

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An investigation conducted by the Justice Department, the results of which were published last Wednesday, concluded that the FBI broke the law on many occasions between April 2003 and November 2006 when it monitored phone calls and other forms of telecommunication.

As part of federal counterterrorism initiatives, the FBI acquired more than 3,500 telephone numbers and call records from employees of three major telecom companies. The companies, which have not yet been named, contracted out six employees to the FBI, and also provided unlimited access to phone records—without the legal authority to do so—to the government.

The telecom employees worked in FBI offices and responded to over 700 requests for information from FBI investigators, sometimes giving the information verbally or scribbled on Post-It notes. Both parties violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act multiple times, because the FBI is required by both law and Justice Department policy to issue formal requests for telecommunications information of this nature.

According to the report, which was issued by the Justice Department’s Inspector General (IG), the telecom companies’ workers not only shared space with the FBI agents, but had their own FBI email accounts, telephone extensions, and a “separately networked computer that provided access to the records of the communications service provider.” That made them part of the FBI “team.”

The telecom workers gave agents not only phone numbers and call records, but also the “calling circles” of individual suspects, reporters and others.

The IG report does recommend disciplinary action against the FBI, but agrees with the Department’s Office of Public Integrity that there is not enough evidence to justify pursuing criminal charges against the FBI agents who were implicated in the transfer of information.

Privacy advocates who are concerned that the FBI wants to safeguard its ability to circumvent policy and law in obtaining phone records point to one section of the report, which reads “After reviewing a draft of this report the FBI also asserted for the first time that… [it] could have obtained these records without any legal process or qualifying emergency through voluntary production by the communications service providers.”

The FBI was given some authority to scan phone records under the Patriot Act, but citizens and groups who are concerned about privacy issues say that the bureau abused this authority.

The difficulty of suing the government, especially when there are classified records involved, means that there may be no repercussions for the FBI or its agents.

 

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