FBI wiretaps dropped due to unpaid bills
WASHINGTON — Telephone companies have cut off FBI wiretaps used to eavesdrop on suspected criminals because of the bureau's repeated failures to pay phone bills on time.
A Justice Department audit released Thursday blamed the lost connections on the FBI's lax oversight of money used in undercover investigations. In one office alone, unpaid costs for wiretaps from one phone company totaled $66,000.
In at least one case, a wiretap used in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act investigation ''was halted due to untimely payment,'' the audit found. FISA wiretaps are used in the government's most sensitive and secretive criminal and intelligence investigations, and allow eavesdropping on suspected terrorists or spies.
More than half of 990 bills to pay for telecommunication surveillance in five unidentified FBI field offices were not paid on time, the report shows.
Assistant FBI Director John Miller said wiretaps were dropped only a few times because of the backed-up billing, which he said didn't significantly set back the investigations under way. He said the FBI ''will not tolerate financial mismanagement, or worse,'' and is working to fix the problems.
''While in a few instances, late-payment of telephone bills resulted in interruptions of the timely delivery of surveillance results, these interruptions were temporary and in our assessment, none of those cases were significantly affected,'' Miller said in a statement Thursday evening.
The report released Thursday was a highly edited version of Fine's 87-page audit that the FBI deemed too sensitive to be viewed publicly. It focused on what the bureau admitted was an ''antiquated'' system to track money sent to its 56 field offices nationwide for undercover work. Generally, the money pays for rental cars, leases and surveillance, the audit noted.
The American Civil Liberties Union called on the FBI to release the entire, unedited audit. The group, which has been critical of some of the government's wiretapping programs, also took a swipe at telecommunication companies that allowed the eavesdropping -- as long as they are getting paid.
''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,'' said former FBI agent Michael German, the ACLU's national security policy counsel. ''To put it bluntly, it sounds as though the telecoms believe it when the FBI says the warrant is in the mail but not when they say the check is in the mail.''
The audit also found that some field offices paid for expenses on undercover cases that should have been financed by FBI headquarters. Out of 130 undercover payments examined, auditors found 14 cases of at least $6,000 each where field offices dipped into their own budgets to pay for work that should have been picked up by headquarters.
The faulty bookkeeping was blamed, in large part, for an FBI employee who pleaded guilty in June 2006 to stealing $25,000 for her own use, the audit noted.
''As demonstrated by the FBI employee who stole funds intended to support undercover activities, procedural controls by themselves have not ensured proper tracking and use of confidential case funds,'' it concluded.
Fine's report offered 16 recommendations to improve the FBI's tracking and management of the funding system, including its telecommunication costs. The FBI has agreed to follow 11 of the suggestions and one additional recommendation was found unnecessary. But it said that four ''would be either unfeasible or too cost prohibitive.'' The recommendations were not specifically outlined in the edited version of the report.
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