Suspect or Sloppy?

Privacy mavens are all atwitter at the news this morning:

A Justice Department investigation has found pervasive errors in the
FBI’s use of its power to secretly demand telephone, e-mail and
financial records in national security cases, officials with access to
the report said yesterday.

The inspector general’s audit found 22
possible breaches of internal FBI and Justice Department regulations —
some of which were potential violations of law — in a sampling of 293
“national security letters.” The letters were used by the FBI to obtain
the personal records of U.S. residents or visitors between 2003 and
2005. The FBI identified 26 potential violations in other cases.

Set aside for a moment the old-fashioned notion of privacy so many keep fantasizing about and the fact that law enforcement and intelligence need some fast and easy way to gather common personal information because bad people live, work and operate among us and what does the article really tell us?

The pervasiveness and diversity of the errors suggest that there is a serious training deficiency at the FBI. Even without NSLs FBI agents have always handled a not more personal information than, say, NSA officers, but at NSA rules about dealing with such information are beaten into your head and heart from day one. Violations are dealt with swiftly and harshly. If these cases were part of a deliberate campaign to abuse NSLs there would be more focus and the errors more consistent.

It is also important to note that this revelation was self-exposed by the IG, not the result of a leak or a lawsuit. A systematic and organized effort would have a much more substantial defense/spin machine at work, or enough sense to not have been caught altogether.

Need more convincing? One of the more revealing points is brought up later in the article:

Fine’s audit, which was limited to 77 case files in four FBI field
offices, found that those offices did not even generate accurate counts
of the national security letters they issued, omitting about one in
five letters from the reports they sent to headquarters in Washington.
Those inaccurate numbers, in turn, were used as the basis for required
reports to Congress.

Remember, this is an agency that is legend among bureaucracies for the depth and breadth of its paperwork. You can build a whole career at the FBI doing nothing but “i” dotting and “t” crossing. In that sort of environment the fact that each office didn’t have a log documenting each letter issued suggests confusion or chaos, not conspiracy.

This is a problem about unclear policy and shoddy procedure, not organized and systemic mischief against the people. The Bureau would do well to learn some lessons from their brothers in Anne Arundel County (could have leveraged Mo B. when you had her) or they’re likely to start slipping towards the danger zone that the Nebraska Avenue kids are in (which – mark my words – is a fiasco waiting to happen).

Leave a Reply