Paper Trails

How do you do solve a problem shown through an uncomfortable paper trail demonstrating a misuse of power and possible overreach?

You eliminate the paper trail.

In all the recent headlines about blame babes (Plame) and politically fired political appointees (AGs), the FBI overreach ‘scandal’ has lost its grip on first page and slipped somewhere into the middle of the paper. (And who remembers the curfuffle about that Walter Whatever hospital?)

The FBI story surfaced about two weeks ago when it was revealed that the government was using so called “emergency letters” to request telephone records. The “emergency letters” were to precede a court ordered subpoena and were only to be used in – well – emergencies. It doesn’t seem to have worked out quite like that. An audit of the practice by that oh-so-politicized Department of Justice turned up misuse. From the Washington Post,

The audit by the department’s inspector general detailed widespread abuse of the FBI’s authority to seize personal details about tens of thousands of people without court oversight through the use of national security letters.

It also found that the FBI had hatched an agreement with telephone companies allowing the agency to ask for information on more than 3,000 phone numbers — often without a subpoena, without an emergency or even without an investigative case. In 2006, the FBI then issued blanket letters authorizing many of the requests retroactively, according to agency officials and congressional aides briefed on the effort.

The disclosures prompted a public apology from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and promises of reform from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who was the focus of a new tide of criticism from Democrats and Republicans already angry about his handling of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

The problem was that during the audit (the download 34 MB),the inspector general found a paper trail showing the abuses. Management promised to address the problem.

Yesterday’s Washington Post carried the administration’s solution. Simply remove the paper trail and stop using letters – just ask for the information.

The FBI, which has been criticized for improperly gathering telephone records in terrorism cases, has told its agents they may still ask phone companies to voluntarily hand over toll records in emergencies by using a new set of procedures, officials said yesterday. In the most dire emergencies, requests can be submitted to the companies verbally, officials said.
[…]
Under past procedures, agents sent “exigent circumstances letters” to phone companies, seeking toll records by asserting there was an emergency. Then they were expected to issue a grand jury subpoena or a “national security letter,” which legally authorized the collection after the fact. Agents often did not follow up with that paperwork, the inspector general’s investigation found.

The new instructions tell agents there is no need to follow up with national security letters or subpoenas. The agents are also told that the new letter template is the preferred method in emergencies but that they may make requests orally, with no paperwork sent to phone companies. Such oral requests have been made over the years in terrorism and kidnapping cases, officials said.

Now the Patriot Act spelled out that the “emergency letters” were only to be used in “emergencies.” The Patriot Act spelled out that “emergency letters” were to be followed up with supoenas. But as one FBI person interviewed described in the original story (and sorry can’t find the reference), once you have the documents the urge to do paperwork goes way down. But hey, this new plan – no paper, but an auditable trail (of what breadcrumbs?) I’m sure that will work much better. Bravo.

We don’t need no paper anymore. (Hey FBI, do you even have working software yet?!)

According to the article there will be an audit trail. FBI Assistant Director John Miller says so and we just have to believe him. Because even if the FBI is wrong and the telephone records weren’t needed, the government will never tell you they requested it. And if they forget to write it down, no one can prove they asked for it. Neat huh?

But perhaps more interesting is that this story got bounced back from the front page to page A06 in yesterdays WP. It got covered almost nowhere else.

Whereas Reagan was known as the Teflon president, Bush has developed a completely new strategy: produce so much shit that the press is simply overloaded. After all, there are only 30 minutes (or subtracting fluff, sports, weather and advertising about 10 minutes) on the evening news and the cable news shows manage about the same average spread over 24 hours (but with pundits!) In recent years the newspapers have been getting thinner and smaller and the journalistic staffs cut.

The Bush administration has finally managed to tweak spin to a fine art. You don’t need to spin a story for more than three or four days if you can toss another headline grabbing scandal on the fire. Brilliant. Don’t spin, scandal!

And who says Bush isn’t smart. After all, hasn’t he proven he knows where the library is in the White House? Now if we could only find the record of his library card to find out what he is really reading.

Oh. Yeah. Forgot. No paper trail

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