The FBI has apologized for monitoring the telephone records of Washington Post and New York Times journalists in 2004 — but exactly why the phones records were monitored, and nature of the “exigent” letters used to gain that information — remain unanswered.
Reporters Without Borders said in an Aug. 13 statement they want an explanation why the FBI deemed it necessary to catalog incoming and outgoing calls at the newspapers’ Indonesian bureaus.
At the time, the reporters in question were working in southeast Asia on stories about Islamic terrorism.
In 2007, the Justice Department’s Inspector General unearthed thousands of cases in which the FBI improperly issued national security letters — a type of administrative subpoena that bypasses the court system, and which imposes a gag order preventing recipients from disclosing the letter’s existence — to gain access to phone records in terrorism investigations.
The exigent letters used in the Indonesian case were another class of letter altogether — and, according to a New York Times article, are illegal.
Although Robert S. Mueller III, the FBI’s director, agreed to stop using national security letters after the investigation, new questions have emerged about the use of emergency letters that bypassed even the First Amendment protections in place for journalists.
In accepting the apology, Times executive editor Bill Keller said, “We’d still like to know more about how this happened and how the bureau is securing against similar violations in the future.”
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement that broadly condemned national security and emergency letters, saying potential for abuse remained.
“There are insufficient safeguards on the agency’s use of national security letters and other intrusive surveillance tools,” Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said in a statement.
Lawmakers also expressed concern as the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Mueller demanding an explanation.
“In future congressional hearings, we plan to ask you about the misuse of exigent letters and the possible need for additional legislation,” committee members Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) wrote.
“F.B.I. Says It Obtained Reporters’ Phone Records”
The New York Times, Aug. 8, 2008
“FBI apologizes to newspapers for spying on reporters”
Reporters Without Borders, Aug. 13, 2008
“FBI improperly obtains reporters’ phone records”
American Civil Liberties Union, Aug. 9, 2008
“Lawmakers still seeking details on FBI’s illegal records demands”
Talking Points Memo, Aug. 11, 2008