- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002


FBI agents illegally videotaped suspects, intercepted e-mail without court permission and recorded the wrong phone conversations during sensitive terrorism and espionage investigations, according to an internal memorandum detailing serious lapses inside the FBI more than a year before the September 11 attacks.

The blunders roughly 15 over the first three months of 2000 were never made public but caught the attention of the "highest levels of management" inside the FBI, said the memo written by senior bureau lawyers and obtained by the Associated Press.

Lawmakers reviewing FBI missteps preceding the terror attacks expressed surprise yesterday at the extent of errors detailed in the memo, which focused on sensitive cases requiring warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The mistakes extend beyond those criticized in a rare public decision this past summer by the secretive U.S. court that oversees the surveillance warrants. That court admonished the FBI for providing inaccurate information in warrant applications.

The April 2000 memo marked "immediate" and classified as "secret" describes different problems from those cited by the court. It describes agents conducting unauthorized searches, writing warrants with wrong addresses and allowing "overruns" of electronic surveillance operations beyond their legal deadline.

"The level of incompetence here is egregious," said Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, who obtained the memo from the FBI and provided it to AP.

Said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat: "Honest mistakes happen in law enforcement, but the extent, variety and seriousness of the violations recounted in this FBI memo show again that the secret FISA process breeds sloppiness unless there's adequate oversight."

The FBI's deputy general counsel, whose office approves requests for national security warrants, acknowledged yesterday the mistakes led to broad concern inside his agency long before Congress began investigating whether the bureau missed signs leading up to the September 11 attacks.

"There's always going to be mistakes," said M.E. "Spike" Bowman. "We looked at those incidents very, very hard. We found no common thread. A lot of it was inattention to detail."

These warrants are among the most powerful tools in the U.S. anti-terrorism arsenal, permitting secret searches and wiretaps for up to one year without ever notifying the target of the investigation.

The court approved 1,012 such warrants in 2000.

Mr. Bowman said the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility investigated the problems.

No FBI agent lost his or her job as a result of the internal inquiry, Mr. Bowman said, and the FBI has not had the same number of mistakes since.

It averages now about 10 mistakes a year in such cases, he said.

The FBI also notified the U.S. court about the warrant problems and the response from judges was "a lot of head scratching over how this could happen," Mr. Bowman said.

"It's important to understand that government doesn't abuse these secret authorities we get," Mr. Bowman said.

The FBI has never detected an agent intentionally violating a special surveillance warrant, he added.

Lawmakers approved changes last year under the USA Patriot Act giving new powers to use these special terrorism and espionage warrants. But some lawmakers have since complained they were not adequately informed of problems under the old rules.

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