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Review: FBI skirted law to get phone records

The Justice Department's inspector general says the FBI used several methods that didn't meet legal requirements — including Post-it notes and e-mails— to get phone records in terrorism probes.
Terror Hearings
FBI Director Robert Mueller says he is reviewing the findings of an investigation that found fault with the way his agency collected telephone records in terrorism investigations.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The FBI used a variety of informal methods, from requests by e-mail to Post-it notes, that circumvented the law to obtain thousands of phone call records for terrorism investigations, the Justice Department's inspector general said in a report Wednesday.

The 289-page examination said that for several years the FBI obtained some phone records by those methods, by telephone and by what the FBI referred to as "sneak peeks" — all informal approaches that the inspector general found were improper.

The FBI's Communications Analysis Unit made informal requests for the call records associated with at least 3,500 telephone numbers. The IG said it could not determine the full scope of the practice because of the FBI's inadequate record-keeping.

Regarding the use of "sneak peeks," employees of phone companies would check their records and provide the FBI with a preview of the available information for a targeted phone number, without any written justification for the request from the FBI, and often without documentation that such a request had even been made.

Part of the IG's examination focused on the use of 700 exigent letters to obtain the calling records for more than 2,000 phone numbers from 2003 to 2006. The IG concluded that contrary to the statements in the letters, many of the investigations for which the letters were used did not meet legal standards.

Practices described as 'troubling'
The report also disclosed that as part of a leak investigation, the FBI obtained records for telephone numbers assigned to some reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post without first obtaining approval from the attorney general as required by federal regulation and department policy.

According to the report, a phone company provided the FBI 22 months of records for a Washington Post reporter's phone number and provided records to the FBI for the phone number assigned to one of the Post's bureaus. According to the report, The FBI says it has purged records obtained from both newspapers from its databases.

The FBI's practices are "troubling" and the bureau and the Justice Department need to take steps to ensure that agents obtain records in accord with the law and department policies, Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a statement.

Reliance on the informal methods represented "an egregious breakdown" in the FBI's responsibility to comply with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the report concluded.

"We take the issues raised by the inspector general exceptionally seriously and we have since we first undertook a review a number of years ago," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee during an appearance Wednesday on Capitol Hill.