In a preview of what will apparently be a scorching Inspector General report, the Washington Post today details how the FBI illegally collected more than 2,000 U.S. phone records over several years during the Bush Administration.
The crux of the lawbreaking was the FBI’s use of so-called “exigent circumstances letters” to get phone records. That’s was a post-9/11 tool created to allow quick searches of phone records in case of emergency.
After using such an emergency letter, the bureau was legally required to get an after-the-fact national security letter — the traditional authorization for obtaining phone records, which must be OKed by top officials. But in the cases described by the Post, the FBI simply didn’t bother to get a national security letter, often because there was no real emergency.
Documents show that senior FBI managers up to the assistant director level approved the procedures for emergency requests of phone records and that headquarters officials often made the requests, which persisted for two years after bureau lawyers raised concerns and an FBI official began pressing for changes.
“We have to make sure we are not taking advantage of this system, and that we are following the letter of the law without jeopardizing national security,” FBI lawyer Patrice Kopistansky wrote in one of a series of early 2005 e-mails asking superiors to address the problem.
The FBI didn’t offer much of a defense to the Post, arguing that the lawbreaking was merely “technical.”