If You Can’t Trust a Spy, Who Can You Trust?

As I noted last week, it looks like top Democrats in the Senate are folding on even fairly mild PATRIOT Act reform for fear of disrupting ongoing investigations—and in particular a “sensitive collection program” involving Section 215 “tangible things” orders. The impulse to defer to executive branch claims of necessity is powerful, and even understandable, but it ought to be resisted. We normally impose neutral magistrates between law officers and search warrants precisely because we understand that the investigators, precisely because of the admirable vigor and single-mindedness we want and expect from them, are not necessarily the best judges of how much power they require.  The classic “not enough power” story used to justify the so-called “lone wolf” provision turned out not to hold up under scrutiny, but as I was mulling the current debate, I suddenly remembered a curious story from my days as a tech journalist.

In July of 2005, the Bureau was investigating Magdy Mahmoud Mostafa el-Nashar, a one-time associate of the men who had recently bombed London’s public transit system. (It was soon determined that el-Nashar had not been involved in the plot.) According to a 2007 summary of the investigation, an agent was sent with a grand jury subpoena to recover records from North Carolina State University at Raleigh on July 13.

But then, it appears, something odd happened.”After receiving the subpoena,” the documents recount, the agent “served the subpoena and had some records in hand when he received a call” from his supervisor, who “had been notified by FBIHQ… that we were not to utilize a Grand Jury subpoena and that we must obtain a National Security Letter (NSL).” The agent apparently returned the records (though there appears to be some confusion about whether the agent had actually finished serving the subpoena), and the Bureau’s Charlotte office got to work drafting an NSL.

That was an exceedingly odd thing to do, because the law is totally unambiguous about the kinds of records and institutions that are subject to National Security Letters. And while they’re extraordinarily broad tools, anyone even passingly familiar with them should know they don’t apply to educational records. The school’s lawyers, doubtless perplexed about why they were getting an invalid request for records they’d already happily turned over, nevertheless properly refused to honor the illicit NSL. Agents are supposed to voluntarily report any improper NSL requests, even accidental ones, to an oversight board within 14 days. This one, for some reason, took over a year to make its way up the chain. And yet within a week of the event, FBI Director Robert Mueller was conspicuously well informed about the little mishap with el-Nashar’s school records:

A July 21 e-mail to the North Carolina office explained: “The director would like to use this as an example tomorrow as to why we need administrative subpoenas’s [sic] to fight the war on terror. In particular, he would like to know how much extra time was spent having to get the Grand Jury subpoena.”

So to review, a legally proper request is issued, the records sought are in hand, when suddenly the call comes down to give them back and use an obviously inappropriate NSL request, costing several days. The head of the bureau is instantly aware of this—though apparently not of the flagrant impropriety—and eager to cite it as evidence that, of course, investigators need more power or their vital efforts to protect us from terrorists will be stymied.

Now, I’m happy to suppose that the initial mix-up was just an honest mistake. But it also very clearly wasn’t evidence to cite in favor of the proposition that the Bureau needed broader powers. Yet nobody, at the time—neither Mueller nor the legislators before whom he testified—seemed to have the time or inclination to get particular about the facts. It was, for the purposes of all concerned, one of those stories that’s “too good to check.” Now that it has been checked, it’s a story to bear in mind when the boys at Justice cry “necessity.”