By Ryan Singel
Just one day after a news that an internal audit found that FBI agents abused a Patriot Act power more than 1,000 times, a federal judge ordered the agency Friday to begin turning over thousands of pages of documents related to the agency’s use of a powerful, but extremely secretive investigative tool that can pry into telephone and internet records.
The order for monthly document releases commencing July 5 came in response to a government sunshine request by a civil liberties group, which sued in April over the FBI’s foot-dragging on its broad request.
The April request from the Electronic Frontier Foundation asked the FBI to turn over documents related to its misuse of National Security Letters, self-issued subpoenas that don’t need a judge’s approval and which can get financial, phone and internet records. Recipients of the letters are forbidden by law from ever telling anyone other than their lawyer that they received the request. Though initially warned to use this power sparingly, FBI agents issued more than 47,000 in 2005, more than half of which targeted Americans. Information obtained from the requests, which need only be certified by the agency to be "relevant" to an investigation, are dumped into a data-mining warehouse for perpetuity.
An Inspector General report in March found rampant errors in the small sample of NSLs examined and systemic underreporting of the powers usage to Congress. The report also found that agents issued more than 700 "expedited" letters, some containing materially false sworn statements. These letters had no legal basis and essentially asked companies to turn over data by pretending there was an emergency in order to get the data necessary to get a proper NSL. One former FBI agent says its clear the FBI violated the law.
Now the Justice Department must turn over 2,500 pages of documents a month to the EFF, including information on cozy surveillance contracts between the FBI and telephone companies and information on how data captured by NSLs were put into the FBI’s massive data mining warehouse.
The Justice Department told the court that there were more than 100,000 potentially responsive documents and that ten people are working full time on filling the request for documents. Look out for a run on thick, black magic markers in D.C.
THREAT LEVEL can’t wait to see:
1. All records discussing or reporting violations or potential violations of statutes, Attorney General guidelines, and internal FBI policies governing the use of NSLs, including, but not limited to:
A. Correspondence or communications between the FBI and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concerning violations or potential violations of statutes…
2. Guidelines, memoranda or communications addressing or discussing the integration of NSL data into the FBIís Investigative Data Warehouse; 3. Contracts between the FBI and three telephone companies [...] which were intended to allow the Counterterrorism Division to obtain telephone toll billing data from the communications industry as expeditiously as possible;
4. Any guidance, memoranda or communications discussing the FBI’s legal authority to issue exigent letters to telecommunications companies, and the relationship between such exigent letters and the FBI’s authority to issue NSLs under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act;
5. Any guidance, memoranda or communications discussing the application of the Fourth Amendment to NSLs issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act;
8. Copies of sample or model exigent letters used by the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division;
9. Copies of sample or model NSL approval requests used by the FBIís Counterterrorism Division;
10. Records related to the Counterterrorism Divisionís Electronic Surveillance Operations and Sharing Unit (EOPS).
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