Accountability for ‘Exigent Letter’ Abuse At Last?

It is more than three years since the Office of the Inspector General first brought public attention to the FBI’s systematic misuse of the National Security Letter statutes to issue fictitious “exigent letters” and obtain telecommunications records without due process. Nobody at the Bureau has been fined, or even disciplined, for  this systematic lawbreaking and the efforts to conceal it. But the bipartisan outrage expressed at a subcommittee hearing of the House Judiciary Committee this morning hints that Congress may be running out of patience—and looking for some highly-placed heads to roll. Just to refresh, Committee Chairman John Conyers summarized the main abuses in an opening statement:

The IG found that more than 700 times, such information was obtained about more than 2,000 phone numbers by so-called“exigent letters” from FBI personnel. In some cases, the IG concluded, FBI agents sent the letters even though they believed that factual information in the letters was false. For more than 3,500 phone numbers, the call information was extracted without even a letter, but instead by e‐mail, requests on a post‐it note, or “sneak peaks” of telephone company computer screens or other records…. In one case, the FBI actually obtained phone records of Washington Post and New York Times reporters and kept them in a database, leading to an IG conclusion of “serious abuse” of FBI authority and an FBI public apology.

It’s probably actually worse than that: Since these letters often requested a “community of interest” analysis for targeted numbers, the privacy of many people beyond the nominal targets may have been implicated—though it’s hard to be sure, since the IG report redacts almost all details about this CoI mapping.

And as Rep. Jerry Nadler pointed out, the IG report suggests a “clear pattern here of deliberate evasion,” rather than the innocent oversight the Bureau keeps pleading.  Both Nadler and the Republican ex-chair of the committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, expressed frustration at their sense that, when the FBI had failed to win legislative approval for all the powers on its wish list, it had simply ignored lawful process, seizing by fiat what Congress had refused to grant. Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the Patriot Act, even declared that he felt “betrayed.” But we’ve heard similar rhetoric before. It was the following suggestion from Conyers (from my notes, but pretty near verbatim) that really raised an eyebrow:

There must be further investigation as to who and why and how somebody in the Federal Bureau of Investigation could invent a practice and have allowed it to have gone on for three consecutive years.  I propose and hope that this committee and its leadership will join me, because I think there may be grounds for removal of the general counsel of the FBI.

That would be Valerie Caproni, one of the hearing’s two witnesses, and an executive-level official whose dismissal would be the first hint of an administration response commensurate with the gravity of the violations that occurred. Caproni’s testimony, consistent with previous performances, was an awkward effort to simultaneously minimize the seriousness of FBI’s abuses—she is fond of saying “flawed” when le mot juste is “illegal”—and also to assure legislators that the Bureau was treating it with the utmost seriousness already. Sensenbrenner appeared unpersuaded, at one point barking in obvious irritation: “I don’t think you’re getting the message; will you get the message today?” The Republican also seemed to indirectly echo Conyers’ warning, declaring himself “not unsympathetic” to the incredulous chairman’s indictment of her office. Of course, the FBI has it’s own Office of Professional Responsibility which is supposed to be in charge of holding agents and officials accountable for malfeasance, but apparently the wheels there are still grinding along.

It’s also worth noting that Inspector General Glenn Fine, who also testified, specifically urged Congress to look into a secret memo issued in January by the Office of Legal Counsel, apparently deploying some novel legal theory to conclude that many of the call records obtained by the FBI were not covered by federal privacy statutes after all. This stood out just because my impression is that OIG usually limits itself to straight reporting and leaves it to Congress to judge what merits investigation, suggesting heightened concern about the potential scope of the ruling, despite FBI’s pledge not to avail itself of this novel legal logic without apprising its oversight committees. Alas, the details here are classified, but Caproni did at one point in her testimony conclude that “disclosure of approximately half of the records at issue was not forbidden by ECPA and/or was
connected to a clear emergency situation.”  There were 4,400 improperly obtained “records at issue” in the FBI’s internal review, of which about 150 were ultimately retained on the grounds that they would have qualified for the emergency exception in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  Since that tally didn’t include qualifying records for which legitimate process had nevertheless been issued at some point, the number of “real” emergencies is probably slightly higher, but that still suggests that the “half” Caproni alludes to are mostly in the “disclosure…not forbidden by ECPA” category.  Since ECPA is fairly comprehensive when it comes to telecom subscriber records—or at least, so we all thought until recently—we have to assume she means that these are the types of records the OLC opinion has removed from FISA’s protection. If those inferences are correct, and the new OLC exception covers nearly half of the call detail records FBI obtains, that would not constitute a “loophole” in federal electronic privacy law so much as its evisceration.

Of course, it’s possible that the specific nature of the exception would allay civil libertarian fears. What’s really intolerable in a democratic society is that we don’t know. Operational facts about specific investigations, and even specific investigatory techniques, are rightly classified. But an interpretation of a public statute so significant as to potentially halve its apparent protections cannot be kept secret without making a farce of the rule of law.