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FBI broke law for years in phone record searches

The FBI's general counsel says Director Robert S. Mueller III, shown at an FBI Academy graduation in Quantico, did not learn about the unlawful collection of phone records until 2006, when they ended.
The FBI's general counsel says Director Robert S. Mueller III, shown at an FBI Academy graduation in Quantico, did not learn about the unlawful collection of phone records until 2006, when they ended. (2006 Photo By Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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FBI officials said they are confident that the safeguards enacted in 2007 have ended the problems. Caproni said the bureau will use the inspector general's findings to determine whether discipline is warranted.

The internal memos were obtained from a government employee outside the FBI, who gained access to them during the investigations of the searches. The employee spoke on the condition of anonymity because the release was unauthorized.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the need to get information quickly and connect the dots was considered paramount throughout the federal government. The failure to obtain timely and actionable information has been a recurrent theme in the U.S. counterterrorism effort, up to and including the recent shootings at Fort Hood, Tex.

Before 9/11, FBI agents ordinarily gathered records of phone calls through the use of grand jury subpoenas or through an instrument know as a national security letter, issued for terrorism and espionage cases. Such letters, signed by senior headquarters officials, carry the weight of subpoenas with the firms that receive them.

The USA Patriot Act expanded the use of national security letters by letting lower-level officials outside Washington approve them and allowing them in wider circumstances. But the letters still required the FBI to link a request to an open terrorism case before records could be sought.

Shortly after the Patriot Act was passed in October 2001, FBI senior managers devised their own system for gathering records in terrorism emergencies.

A new device called an "exigent circumstances letter" was authorized. It allowed a supervisor to declare an emergency and get the records, then issue a national security letter after the fact.

The procedure was based on a system used in the FBI's New York office in the days immediately after the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, officials said.

On Jan. 6, 2003, then-FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Larry Mefford issued a bureau-wide communique authorizing the new tactic, saying the bureau's telephone analysis unit was permitted in "exigent circumstances . . . to obtain specialized toll records information for international and domestic numbers which are linked to subjects of pending terrorism investigations."

The e-mail called this new method of gathering phone records "imperative to the continuing efforts by the FBI to protect our nation against future attacks," even as it acknowledged the phone records of many people not connected to a terrorism investigation were likely to be scooped up.

The 2003 memo stated that the new method "has the potential of generating an enormous amount of data in short order, much of which may not actually be related to the terrorism activity under investigation."

Within a few years, hundreds of emergency requests were completed and a few thousand phone records gathered. But many lacked the follow-up: the required national security letters.


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