FBI Obtained Phone Records Illegally, Report Says

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FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday. i

FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies Wednesday on Capitol Hill on the bureau's counterterrorism efforts. During the hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy confronted Mueller on a report that was released by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General saying the FBI illegally obtained thousands of Americans' telephone records during the Bush administration. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies Wednesday on Capitol Hill on the bureau's counterterrorism efforts. During the hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy confronted Mueller on a report that was released by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General saying the FBI illegally obtained thousands of Americans' telephone records during the Bush administration.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The FBI illegally obtained thousands of Americans' telephone records during the Bush administration, according to a scathing report released Wednesday by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.

The report was released as FBI Director Robert Mueller was about to testify on the bureau's counterterrorism efforts.

In nearly 300 pages, the inspector general calls what happened during the Bush administration "an egregious breakdown" in the FBI's responsibility to obey the law.

What Happened And How It Was Discovered

After Sept. 11, Congress gave the FBI new authorities to get Americans' phone records under the USA Patriot Act. The law included tools called National Security Letters.

When Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act several years later, lawmakers added a new provision telling the Justice Department's inspector general to look into how the FBI was using National Security Letters.

What the inspector general found confirmed privacy advocates' worst fears.

"When the first audit came out in 2007, the inspector general had discovered wanton abuse of the National Security Letter authority," says Mike German, a former FBI agent who now works for the ACLU.

The FBI illegally obtained thousands of Americans' phone records by lying — claiming emergencies when there were none.

A second report in 2008 found that the abuse continued long after the problems were initially flagged.

This is the third report. It says phone company employees acted like FBI agents. They worked in the FBI building, and agents would do what they called "sneak peeks" — basically, looking over a phone company employee's shoulder to get information from the computer screen without going through any formal channels.

"The FBI would use Post-it notes, use face-to-face interactions, e-mails, just all sorts of informal ways to collect information the FBI had no right to obtain," German says.

The report also says the FBI obtained reporters' phone records without getting the attorney general's permission as required.

Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says she is disappointed but not surprised.

"It has been relatively unfortunately common, particularly at the FBI, to ignore a lot of the regulations that are on the books when it comes to going after reporters and their sources," she says.

Will FBI Officials Be Sanctioned Or Punished?

At Wednesday's hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy confronted Mueller, who has been in charge of the FBI since 2001.

"This was not a matter of technical violation. If any one of us did something like this, we'd have to answer to it. This was authorized at high levels within the FBI, and it continued for years," Leahy said.

Leahy asked Mueller whether any FBI officials will be sanctioned or punished. Mueller replied that individuals have been disciplined, but he would not go into detail. And he said the FBI is working to get rid of the information it obtained illegally.

"We've put in place a process to go through every one of those numbers and find out whether we had a valid legal basis to retain that number," Mueller said. "And where we did not, it was purged from our system."

He said the illegal practices ended in 2006, and the FBI now has more internal controls in place to prevent the problems from happening again.

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