House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Michigan) has called for the FBI to fire agency officials who violated privacy laws and wrongfully obtained the telephone records of individuals by citing terrorism threats that didn’t exist.
“Today’s hearing showed that the FBI broke the law on telephone records privacy and the General Counsel’s Office, headed by Valerie Caproni, sanctioned it and must face consequences,” said Conyers. “I call upon FBI Director Mueller to take immediate action to punish those who violated the rules, including firing them from the agency. This must include the FBI Office of General Counsel, headed by Valerie Caproni, which the IG testified today had ‘approved (the) continued use’ of exigent letters and ‘provided legal advice that was inconsistent with’ federal law.
From 2003 to 2006, the FBI issued about 700 exigent letters, or informal requests for records from telecommunications companies, by citing nonexistent terrorism emergencies or using misleading language to circumvent the law or internal guidelines. These letters have no statutory basis and do not exist in the Patriot Act.
According to a report released by the Justice Department’s inspector general in January, the FBI obtained records for more than 2,000 phone numbers via email, Post-it notes, phone calls and what the FBI called “sneak peeks,” approaches which the inspector general found were improper. It also concluded that many of the investigations where exigent letters were used did not meet legal standards.
Additionally, the employees of three communications service providers worked in the same rooms as the FBI’s communications analysis unit and had immediate access to company databases and records, which allowed them to quickly respond to FBI requests for information.
One FBI agent interviewed by investigators said the process became so casual that it was “like having an ATM in your living room.”
In the report, the inspector general said the way the employees were treated as “team” members, “combined with the lack of guidance, supervision, and oversight of their interactions with FBI employees . . . contributed to some of the serious abuses identified.”
FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a hearing on Capitol Hill in January that the FBI improved its internal controls after becoming aware of the problem and stopped using such letters in 2006, adding that officials only monitored phone numbers, dates and durations of the calls, not content.
Valerie Caproni, the FBI’s general counsel, said during Wednesday’s hearing that though FBI personnel used exigent letters “to pursue (their) critical counterterrorism mission, this does not excuse our failure to have in place appropriate internal controls.”
“Some of the exigent letters and other improper practices (described) in this report were used to obtain telephone records that the FBI used to evaluate some of the most serious terrorist threats posed to the United States in the last few years,” she added, though she emphasized that “we can only achieve our mission of keeping the country safe if we are trusted by all segments of the American public.”
Republicans and Democrats alike expressed outrage at the violations.
“I’m extremely disappointed that every time Congress has tried to plug potential civil rights and civil liberties violations in our counterterrorism activities, the FBI seems to have figured out a way to get around it,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and one of the authors of the Patriot Act in 2001.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, called the report’s findings “disturbing.”
“While it should be reassuring that the practice of issuing exigent letters has been stopped, the reckless disregard for the law and the privacy rights of the American people does not bode well for the future,” he said. “We have laws for a reason, and the people who wrote our Constitution did not believe that trust and assurances were sufficient to protect our rights.”