- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2008

FBI wiretaps used in undercover investigations, including those aimed at deterring terrorist attacks and foreign intelligence threats, have been cut off by telephone companies because of the bureau’s repeated failure to pay its phone bills on time, a government audit said yesterday.

The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General said a review of 990 telecommunication surveillance payments made by five FBI field divisions found that more than half of them were not made on time, and that late payments resulted in the phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI being disconnected.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said the disconnections resulted in “lost evidence, including an instance where delivery of intercept information required by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act order was halted due to untimely payment.” FISA orders allow eavesdropping on suspected terrorists or spies.

FBI Assistant Director John Miller said the bureau is “confident” that ongoing efforts by the Justice Department to create a unified financial management system for all department agencies “will greatly strengthen oversight and controls” over existing financial programs, including funds used for telecommunications services.

“While there is widespread agreement that the current financial management system, first introduced in the 1980s, is inadequate, the FBI will not tolerate financial mismanagement, or worse, and is addressing the issues identified in the audit,” Mr. Miller said.

“Every effort is being made to either implement the recommendations or otherwise put in place corrective actions to ensure appropriate oversight,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Americans should be “extremely concerned when the FBI’s failure to pay its bills on time puts our national security at risk.”

“We’re down the constitutional rabbit hole when lack of payment, and not the lack of a warrant, prevents the FBI from wiretapping,” said Michael German, the ACLU’s national security policy counsel. “It seems the telecoms, who are claiming they were just being ‘good patriots’ when they allowed the government to spy on us without warrants, are more than willing to pull the plug on national security investigations when the government falls behind on its bills.”

Mr. Fine said the FBI lacks consistent procedures necessary to track the charges, instead using separate, ad hoc tracking mechanisms that have had “mixed results in paying bills on time.” He said one primary carrier sent a list to one of the audited field divisions detailing $66,000 in unpaid bills.

“The audit found that the FBI has not established sufficient guidance and consistent procedures necessary to track and pay telecommunication surveillance bills accurately and timely,” he said.

Mr. Fine noted that the lax oversight and poor supervision had allowed one agent to steal $25,000 in funds designated for undercover activities. The 87-page audit yesterday came as a result of a criminal investigation into the June 2006 theft.

The 2006 probe exposed what the Office of Inspector General called “weak controls” over the money.

Mr. Fine said the audit also showed that FBI field divisions did not consistently handle refunds from carriers for overpayments or payments for services that were not rendered.

He said FBI personnel told auditors that a field division can receive several refunds a month, depending on the surveillance activity requested.

In examining the personnel and activity security files of 35 field division employees who had access to the confidential funds, the audit also found that nearly half of them had personal financial problems, such as late loan payments and bankruptcies.

Five-year FBI background investigations may be helpful in identifying employees who have financial hardships or concerns, but Mr. Fine said the bureau has not “developed or implemented procedures that ensure employees with financial concerns are not placed in situations where they are responsible for approving and handling confidential case funds without enhanced supervision.”

“The FBI needs to develop and implement procedures that ensure employees with serious financial concerns do not regularly handle confidential case funds without additional oversight or safeguards,” he said.

A full audit was not released because it contains information the Office of Inspector General said was “too sensitive.” It was given only to the FBI, the Justice Department and congressional oversight committees.

The ACLU asked that the full report be released.

Of the 16 recommendations Mr. Fine’s office offered to improve the system, the FBI agreed to follow 11 of them but said the others “would be either unfeasible or too cost prohibitive.”

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