By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008
Telecommunications companies have repeatedly cut off FBI access to wiretaps of alleged terrorists and criminal suspects because the bureau did not pay its phone bills, according to the results of an audit released yesterday.
The report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said that more than half of nearly 1,000 FBI telecommunications bills reviewed by investigators were not paid on time, including one invoice for $66,000 at an unidentified field office.
The report cited a case in which an order obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- which covers clandestine wiretaps of terrorism and espionage suspects -- was halted because of "untimely payment."
"Late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence," Fine said in a seven-page summary of the audit's findings.
The audit is the latest in a string of reports from Fine's office over the past seven years to detail chronic financial and inventory management problems at the bureau, including a persistent failure to account for hundreds of guns and laptop computers.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said that, in every case mentioned in Fine's report, the intercepted information was recovered after the bills were paid. "No evidence was lost in these cases," he said.
In a statement, FBI Assistant Director John Miller noted that "there is widespread agreement that the current financial management system, first introduced in the 1980s, is inadequate."
But Miller said the FBI "will not tolerate financial mismanagement" and is working to address the problems revealed by the audit. The bureau is taking part in an update of all Justice Department financial systems.
The late payments were part of a broader pattern of lax bookkeeping identified by Fine's review, which focused on how FBI headquarters tracks special funds that are sent to field offices to pay for rental cars, surveillance and other expenses in undercover investigations.
A review of 35 employees with access to such funds found that half had personal bankruptcies or other financial problems, the report said. In one case prosecuted in June 2006, an FBI telecommunications specialist pleaded guilty to stealing more than $25,000 intended for telephone services.
In another example of the FBI's administrative difficulties, Fine's office reported in 2002 that the bureau could not account for hundreds of missing guns and laptop computers. His office noted more of the same in a follow-up report last year.
The seven-page report released yesterday was only a summary of Fine's 87-page audit, which has been deemed too sensitive for public release. The summary did not say which field offices had problems or identify any of the individuals involved.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been sharply critical of the Bush administration's surveillance practices, called on the FBI to release the full report. The group's national security policy counsel, Michael German, also said that the report raises questions about the motives of large telecom firms, which have, in many cases, allowed the government to run wiretaps on their systems without warrants.
"It sounds as though the telecoms believe it when the FBI says the warrant is in the mail, but not when they say the check is in the mail," said German, a former FBI agent.
The audit comes as the Bush administration is urging Congress to approve an overhaul of the 1978 wiretap law to grant telecommunications firms immunity from lawsuits for helping the FBI and other government agencies conduct secret surveillance.