The significance of the FBI's law-breaking

The FBI, in cooperation with America's telecoms, has created a completely lawless framework for scrutinizing citizens' private lives.

Published March 18, 2007 3:54PM (EDT)

A front-page Washington Post article this morning reports that the FBI's illegal use of NSLs was known inside the FBI but continued anyway. The real value of this article is that it keeps this scandal in the spotlight, because there has, thus far, been too little appreciation for just how serious and threatening this rampant FBI lawbreaking really is. The seriousness of this scandal has been, understandably, slightly obscured by the sheer number of other DOJ scandals, so it is worthwhile to note what makes this so significant.

In essence, the FBI and our nation's telecommunications companies have secretly created a framework whereby the FBI can obtain -- instantaneously and without limits -- any information it asks for. The Patriot Act already substantially expanded the circumstances under which the FBI can obtain such records without the need for subpoenas or any judicial process, and it left in place only the most minimal limitations and protections. But it is those very minimal safeguards which the FBI continuously violated in order to obtain whatever information its agents desired, about any Americans they targeted, with literally no limits of any kind.

In order to obtain telephone records within this FBI-telecom framework, FBI agents have been simply furnishing letters to the telecom companies -- not even NSLs, just plain letters from an agent -- assuring the telecom companies that (a) the records were needed immediately due to "exigent circumstances" and (b) a subpoena for the records had been submitted to the U.S. Attorneys Office and was in the process of being finalized. Upon receiving that letter, the telecoms provided any records the FBI requested -- instantaneously, via computer.

At times, they would request records for multiple numbers at once, and sometimes for hundreds of numbers. From the DOJ's IG Report (.pdf):

But the law does not allow any such process. They simply invented it outside of any legal framework in order to get the information they wanted. The FBI and the telecom companies, on their own, have basically created a lawless framework whereby FBI agents can obtain whatever information they ask for with no safeguards.

Worse, in many of these cases where these letters were provided, they were completely false -- both because there were no "exigent" circumstances of any kind and there were no subpoenas that were submitted or being processed. So the FBI agents who submitted these instruction letters repeatedly made false statements in order to obtain highly intrusive records. This is the crux of the abuse:

Far worse still, one of the very few safeguards remaining after the Patriot Act is that the records sought by the FBI must at least relate to an actual national security investigation. That is not just some bureaucratic or petty record-keeping requirement. That is what ensures an actual nexus between the records the FBI obtains concerning your private activities and a real national security purpose. Without that limitation, the FBI just has the free-floating power to compile dossiers on whomever they want.

Yet in hundreds of cases (at least), the FBI sought these records even though there was no pending investigation to which the records related. That means that there were no limits on the telecommunications records which the FBI sought and obtained. They just asked for whatever records they wanted, said whatever they had to say in their lawless letters to get them (even when such statements were false), and the telecom companies instantaneously provided the data to the FBI.

As Lambert at Corrente Wire documented, the FBI not only has the right, but the obligation, to store all of the records it obtains on computer data bases which, as I noted earlier this week, are accessible by tens of thousands of government employees, outside private companies, and even foreign governments. The abolition of most legal safeguards on the power of the Federal Government to obtain and store data about the private lives of American citizens is already itself scandalous, but the fact that the FBI has been continuously violating even those few remaining limitations and instead literally obtaining, with the full-scale cooperation of private telecom companies, any information it asks for -- and making false statements in the process -- is a profoundly disturbing revelation. And one should not even need to explain why that is so.

It really ought to go without saying that the Federal Government does not have as one of its purposes the compiling and storing of data about the private lives of citizens. To the extent such activities are necessary to forward genuine law enforcement or investigative purposes, stringent limitations and oversight are critical, otherwise abuse is inevitable. Yet here, the Federal Government has literally been operating in total secrecy for the last six years, wildly expanding its power to obtain whatever information it wants about any Americans it targets, for whatever reasons, and vast data bases are being created and expanded.

And the ultimate and most pitiful irony of all is that the political movement that claimed to stand for a limited Federal Government is the same movement that has ushered in these invasive and lawless practices, resulting in a Federal Government that has more intrusive and more unchecked power to monitor the private lives of American citizens than, by far, it has ever had before. Independently, this whole system created by the FBI all but prevents any scrutiny, since the failure even to serve NSLs or subpoenas for these records makes it extremely difficult to determine which records were obtained and for what purpose -- a significant reason why the IG's office was unable to conclude whether these illegally obtained records were motivated by criminal intent.

The idea that this is just about some sort of bureaucratic negligence with some petty record-keeping requirements -- a defense being mounted by Bush followers -- is just insultingly stupid. The NSLs have been a source of intense controversy for years. Their potential for abuse is self-evident. And yet the FBI has created systems which allow it to circumvent the few safeguards which exist, and they have exploited that lawless system aggressively and repeatedly -- by making clearly false statements and obtaining records they are legally prohibited from obtaining -- all, according to the Post report, with the knowledge of many FBI lawyers and other managers, at the very least.

If we tolerate our government obtaining and storing information about our personal lives and private activities in clear violation of the laws we have enacted in order to limit those surveillance powers, what don't we tolerate? This lawbreaking is rooted in the same ideology of lawlessness that has governed our country since 2001. For that reason, this is the same question engendered by the NSA scandal, multiple revelations of other law-breaking, and now the revelations (almost certainly still incomplete) that the FBI has ignored the legal limitations on its power to monitor and store data concerning the private lives of American citizens.

By Glenn Greenwald

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