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Context of 'January 10, 2008: FBI Wiretaps Cut Off For Nonpayment of Bills'

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President Bush signs Executive Order 13388, which dramatically expands the powers of the US government to monitor and collect data on US citizens. [Executive Order 13388 of October 25, 2005, 10/25/2005] The order augments the power of “National Security Letters,” authorized in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan (see December 4, 1981), but rarely used against US citizens until the advent of the Bush administration and the USA Patriot Act. Thanks to the order, the data files are even more accessible to what the order calls “state, local, and tribal” governments as well as the undefined “appropriate private sector entities,” presumably private data-mining corporations that collect personal and financial data on US citizens for the government.
Over 30,000 NSLs a Year - The FBI now issues over 30,000 NSLs a year, a hundredfold increase from earlier administration usages. NSLs are issued by FBI field supervisors at their discretion without court warrant or oversight by the judiciary or Congress. NSLs force their recipients—librarians, booksellers, employers, Internet providers, and others—to turn over any and all personal data on their customers and employees and are legally required not to tell the targets of the investigations about the letters or the data collection. An FBI supervisor can, without oversight or reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity, collect data on what a citizen makes, spends, invests, gambles, reads in books and on the Internet, buys online, and with whom that citizen lives, works, associates, telephones, and exchanges e-mails. Senior FBI officials admit that the huge spike in NSLs stems from the FBI’s new authority to collect tremendous amounts of data on US citizens not accused of criminal activities. And NSLs are now used to generate leads against terrorist suspects and not merely pursue them.
NSLs Handled With Discretion, Officials Insist - FBI and White House officials insist that NSLs are handled with discretion and with a recognizance of Americans’ right to privacy. Joseph Billy Jr, the FBI’s deputy director for counterterrorism, says he understand that “merely being in a government or FBI database… gives everybody, you know, neck hair standing up.” But innocent Americans “should take comfort at least knowing that it is done under a great deal of investigative care, oversight, within the parameters of the law.” [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43), USA Patriot Act, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Letters, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

An internal FBI audit reveals that US telecommunications companies have repeatedly terminated FBI access to wiretaps of suspected terrorists and other criminal suspects because bureau officials failed to pay outstanding phone bills. The report, written by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, finds that over half of the nearly 1,000 telecommunications bills reviewed by investigators were not paid on time. One unidentified field office allowed a $66,000 invoice to go unpaid. In another instance, a wiretap conducted under a FISA warrant was terminated because of “untimely payment.” The report notes, “Late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence.” [Washington Post, 1/11/2008] Some of the problems stem from telecoms billing multiple times for single surveillance warrants, which ratchets up the bills quickly. Cox Communications, for example, billed the FBI $1,500 for a single, 30-day wiretap order. Telecoms also bill the FBI for Internet connections and phone lines connecting the carrier’s wiretap-ready switches with the FBI’s own wiretap software system, known as the Digital Collection System. Each field office’s computers are connected together with the other offices, and with FBI headquarters, through a secure fiber optic network managed by Sprint. In some cases, FBI officials were confused about whether to use confidential case funds or general funds to pay the telecom bills. Sometimes they were so confused that when the telecoms sent refunds, the officials returned the refunds to the carriers. [Wired News, 1/10/2008] The report faults the agency for poor handling of money used in undercover investigations, which it says makes the agency vulnerable to theft and mishandled invoices. [Reuters, 1/10/2008] This is the latest in a string of audits by Fine’s office that has found serious financial and management problems at the bureau. FBI spokesman Richard Kolko says that in every case the outstanding bills were eventually paid and the intercepted information was recovered. “No evidence was lost in these cases,” he says. FBI assistant director John Miller blames an “inadequate” financial management system for the failures to pay telecom bills. Previous reports have noted a persistent failure to account for hundreds of computers and weapons, and a pattern of careless bookkeeping that spans a much wider area than the wiretapping program. The audit itself, a detailed, 87-page document, is too sensitive for public release, says the Justice Department, and only a seven-page summary is released. The American Civil Liberties Union calls on the FBI to release the entire document. ACLU counsel Michael German, himself a former FBI agent, questions the motives of the telecom firms, who in many instances have allowed the government to operate wiretaps on their systems without court warrants. “It sounds as though the telecoms believe it when the FBI says the warrant is in the mail, but not when they say the check is in the mail,” he says. [Washington Post, 1/11/2008]

Entity Tags: Glenn Fine, American Civil Liberties Union, Cox Communications, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sprint/Nextel, Mike German, US Department of Justice, Digital Collection System, Richard Kolko, John Miller

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department’s Inspector General, Glenn Fine, writes to Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Fine is responding to their request for an investigation of Justice Department officials’ role in authorizing and overseeing the use of waterboarding by CIA interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Fine notes: “[U]nder current law, the OIG [Office of the Inspector General] does not have jurisdiction to review the actions of [Justice Department] attorneys acting in their capacity to provide legal advice. Legislation that would remove this limitation has passed the House and is pending in the Senate (see April 23, 2008), but at this point the OIG does not have the jurisdiction to undertake the review you request.” [US Department of Justice, 2/19/2008 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Richard (“Dick”) Durbin, Glenn Fine, Sheldon Whitehouse, Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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