By Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
On Sept. 26, 2002, a Special Agent in the FBI's Pittsburgh office had an "uh oh" moment, according to newly disclosed bureau records.
The agent had been in continual contact with a potential counterintelligence source since March. But under FBI rules, that contact required proper authorization - and the paperwork OKing the operation had expired in July, a detail the agent had overlooked for several months.
The extended communications hadn't amounted to much - one e-mail scheduling a security briefing, and two others that were social in nature. But under agency rules the violation had to be reported up the chain of command, all the way to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Ret. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, chairman of the Intelligence Oversight Board.
"Should you or any member of your staff require additional information concerning this matter, an oral briefing will be arranged for you at your convenience," concludes a letter to General Scowcroft describing the situation.
This mistake - though inadvertent - may have been far from an isolated case. Records released this week indicate that the FBI has investigated hundreds of possible violations of the laws that govern secret surveillance operations.
Critics charge that the actions revealed in the papers raise questions about FBI internal controls and whether the changed threat perceptions after Sept. 11 have caused some agents to push the rules. At the least, they say, Congress needs to oversee secret operations more closely.
The FBI, for its part, replies that most of the mistakes aren't major. In addition, they were caught by the bureau itself, officials point out.
And some outside experts suggest that the FBI's biggest problem here may not be violations per se. Underlying the whole mess may be the difficulties of training new agents in the shifting complexities of surveillance law.
"There are pretty elaborate rules and regulations on this subject," says John Pike, a counterterror expert at Globalsecurity.com. "People have difficulty at times understanding what the rules are."
The papers describe 13 cases that were referred for possible action to the Intelligence Oversight Board, an outside panel of experts that is supposed to oversee any legal problems dealing with secret surveillance operations.
The documents were obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. According to the EPIC, case numbers on the documents indicate that almost 300 potential violations occurred in a two-year period. …