Reporting from Washington — The FBI used a variety of controversial and possibly illegal methods to obtain phone records in terrorism investigations, according to a sharply critical report issued Wednesday by the Justice Department's inspector general.
The report by the department's independent watchdog office said the tactics were used by the FBI from 2002 to 2006 and approved by officials at the highest levels of the bureau, including at least four top counter-terrorism officials.
In an apparent effort to cut corners, the FBI informally -- and improperly -- used emergency "exigent letters" to phone service providers to obtain at least 2,000 phone records, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in the 289-page report.
The report described some of the methods as "troubling" and "startling," including claiming fake emergencies and sending requests via e-mail and Post-it notes. The report said the techniques amounted to an "egregious breakdown" of the FBI's oversight of the program. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress made it easier for FBI agents to get phone records in certain emergency circumstances when trying to thwart terrorist plots and attacks.
The report also asserted that FBI officials compounded the misconduct by trying to issue national security letters after the fact.
"While the FBI has taken action to end the use of exigent letters and other informal requests for telephone records, we believe that the FBI and the Justice Department need to examine this report carefully and take additional corrective action to ensure that the FBI obtains such records in accord with the law and Department of Justice policies," Fine's report said.
The report was the inspector general's third on what he found to be the FBI's improper collection of phone records in recent years. It provided new details about the program, including how widespread it became and how much controversy it generated within the bureau.
The report confirmed instances in which FBI agents conducting leak investigations obtained billing records and other calling information for reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post without getting the required authorization from the attorney general.
In response, the FBI issued a statement saying that its agents were working under great stress in trying to run down numerous leads and thwart potential terrorist attacks and that they did not intentionally violate the law. The practice was "limited and discontinued," and the records in question involved only billing records as opposed to access to what was actually discussed in the calls, the FBI said.
"The OIG report finds no intentional attempts to obtain records that counter-terrorism personnel knew they were not legally entitled to obtain," said Michael P. Kortan, the FBI's assistant director for public affairs. "No FBI employee obtained telephone records for reasons other than a legitimate investigative interest."
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III was unaware of the widespread use of the exigent letters until late 2006, when it was uncovered by the inspector general investigation, and he has since taken steps to correct the problem, according to the report and Mueller's testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mueller acknowledged that there were "substantial weaknesses, substantial management and performance failures in our internal control structure as it applied to obtaining telephone records." But he added that better internal controls and changes in policy and training have substantially minimized the possibility of similar errors in the future.
Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said during the hearing that "no one is above the law -- no senator and no member of the FBI, and there has to be accountability for what happened here."
"This was authorized at high levels within the FBI and continued for years," Leahy added.
"We'll look at the conduct and assign discipline as warranted," Mueller said.