In an article buried on page A15, the New York Times reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has admitted to improperly obtaining the phone records of certain reporters. The records reportedly were acquired as part of a “terrorism investigation” but it wasn’t revealed what the records and terrorism had to do with each other,
F.B.I. officials said the incident came to light as part of the continuing review by the Justice Department inspector general’s office into the bureau’s improper collection of telephone records through “emergency” records demands issued to phone providers.
The records were apparently sought as part of a terrorism investigation, but the F.B.I. did not explain what was being investigated or why the reporters’ phone records were considered relevant.
This would be disturbing in any case but particularly because this isn’t the only incidence of impropriety by the bureau recently,
An initial report by the inspector general last year found that the F.B.I. had violated its own policies in tens of thousands of cases by obtaining phone records in terrorism investigations through what are known as national security letters, without first getting needed approval or meeting other standards. In some cases, the F.B.I. used a whole new class of demands – emergency or “exigent” letters – that are not authorized by law. The emergency records were used in the Indonesian episode.
The FBI has apologized to the affected reporters but has not addressed the serious questions surrounding this episode, namely, what do reporters’ phone records have to do with terrorism and, if there was a legitimate reason for wanting the records, why then the secrecy?
It has become far too easy to use “terrorism” as an excuse to circumvent the Constitution and disregard the rule of law. From involving us in an unnecessary war to spying on Americans to the suspension of habeas corpus, terrorism has literally been this administration’s get of jail free card. Now, the FBI is trying to play that same card. This can no longer be tolerated, this culture of secrecy and anything goes in the name of fighting terrorism has to end now and full disclosure of what the FBI was doing with the phone records of journalists is a good place to start.