FBI admits spying on multiple US reporters, apologizes
John Byrne
Published: Saturday August 9, 2008

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Offers no explanation for spying

We're sorry.

That's the message from FBI Director Robert Mueller to the executive editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post, after an inspector general discovered that the agency had seized telephone records from four US reporters without a grand jury.

Mueller called Times' editor Bill Keller and Post chief Len Downie Friday, "expressing regret" that agents had not followed "proper procedures. The "lapse" occurred nearly four years ago and involved four staff members of the papers.

"The FBI discontinued use of the emergency letters after privacy advocates and internal watchdogs cited hundreds of cases in which agents intentionally, or out of sloppiness, did not follow up their 'exigent' requests with paperwork that linked the submission to a genuine matter of national security," Washington Post reporter Carrie Johnson wrote in an article Saturday.

The bureau obtained phone records for a Post reporter and a researcher in Indonesia, and Times reporters Raymond Bonner and Jane Perlez, also in the country at the time.

The records were obtained through what is called an exigent circumstances letter, a demand made by the agency in a practice that skirts civil liberties protections that has flourished in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

Neither Mueller nor his agency offered any explanations regarding the nature of the subject of the investigation that involved spying on American reporters based overseas. Writing in the Post today, Johnson noted that the reporters were writing about Islamic terrorism in Southeast Asia.

"Efforts to obtain phone records for reporters are subject to special rules at the Justice Department, generally requiring approval by the attorney general or another top official," Johnson added. "But such procedures were not followed in the two incidents found by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, bureau officials said yesterday."

"FBI agents involved in the undisclosed national security probe stated at the time of the request that they would follow up with subpoenas from a U.S. attorney, but 'no subpoena was ever issued for your telephone toll records,' according to a letter that Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. received yesterday from FBI General Counsel Valerie Caprone," she added.

Such records listed the phone numbers the reporters called and received, but not the actual conversation, similar to the warrantless wiretapping program the Bush Administration has employed in tracking calls American citizens have placed to overseas destinations.

An FBI spokesman said the records have been expunged.

"I thanked Director Mueller for calling and informing us of this and apologizing," Post editor Downie told his paper. "I told him that we would be asking our general counsel to look into this."

His editors placed the story on page 4 of Saturday's edition.