Lapses went on amid FBI concerns: officials

By R. Jeffrey Smith and John Solomon WASHINGTON, The Washington Post

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 raising escalating concerns about the practice, according to senior FBI and Justice Department officials and documents. FBI lawyers raised the concerns beginning in late October 2004 but did not closely scrutinize the practice until last year, FBI officials acknowledged. They also did not understand the scope of the problem until the Justice Department launched an investigation, FBI officials said. Under pressure to provide a stronger legal footing, counterterrorism agents at that point wrote new demands for 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 an emergency demands for records, called “exigent circumstance letters,” which contained false or undocumented claims. They also included national security letters that were issued without following FBI rules. Both types of request were served on three phone companies.

Referring to the exigent circumstance letters, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote in a letter Friday to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine: “It is … difficult to imagine why there should not have been swift and severe consequences for anyone who knowingly signed … a letter containing false statements. Anyone at the FBI who knew about that kind of wrongdoing had an obligation to put a stop to it and report it immediately.”

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.