FBI's lapse in paying phone bill snips wiretaps

Posted on January 12, 2008 - 7:36pm.

from: USA Today

Audit: FBI's lapse in paying phone bill snips wiretaps

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY Jan. 11, 2008

WASHINGTON — Telecommunications carriers shut down some covert surveillance lines established by the FBI because the bureau failed to make timely bill payments, a Justice Department review found Thursday.

In five of the bureau's 56 field offices, an audit by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found hundreds of delinquent invoices, potentially threatening the integrity of undercover investigations and resulting in an undisclosed amount of lost evidence.

FBI REPORT:Read the summary of findings here

"Late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI," the audit found.

Evidence once was lost when surveillance established by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act order, which typically targets suspected spies and terrorists, was "halted due to untimely payment."

As part of the audit, investigators also examined the personnel files of employees in 35 field divisions. It found that "nearly half" of those employees who could access funds that support covert investigations had "indications of personal financial problems, such as late loan payments and bankruptcies."

The inspector general's review grew out of a 2006 criminal inquiry in which an FBI employee pleaded guilty to stealing about $25,000 intended to support secret wiretaps.

The eight-page audit summarized the inspector general's full 87-page report, much of which was not made public because it contained "sensitive" law enforcement information, the Justice Department said.

Among the information withheld: how often wiretap lines were shut down due to late payments, the nature of those investigations, the time period involved, how much evidence was lost and how much undercover case money the FBI manages annually.

The document also did not identify the field offices where investigators found evidence of lax oversight.

The audit found that the FBI depended on an "antiquated" system to track undercover case funds. In one of the bureau's field offices, investigators found $66,000 in unpaid "telecommunications costs resulting from surveillance activity."

The FBI said it was working to resolve the problems outlined in the audit.

"While there is widespread agreement that the current financial management system, first introduced in the 1980s, is inadequate, the FBI will not tolerate financial mismanagement, or worse, and is addressing the issues identified in the audit," FBI spokesman John Miller said in a statement.

The bureau's "mismanagement still threatens our national security," said Michael German, national security policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has strongly challenged the government's post-9/11 surveillance programs.

"We're down the constitutional rabbit hole when lack of payment, and not the lack of a warrant, prevents the FBI from wiretapping," German said.