Phone companies hang up on FBI wiretaps

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A report issued by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has revealed that there are extreme deficiencies in the FBI’s budget and also the expense on procedures for surveillance. According to the OIG, phone companies have terminated FBI wiretaps and surveillance phone lines because of unpaid phone bills.

The OIG launched an audit of the FBI case fund management after a criminal investigation of an telecommunications specialist over at the FBI pleaded guilty of stealing over $25,000 from the undercover surveillance budget. In the audit, the OIG discovered that there were serious problems in the procedures that the agency uses to handle the expenses for undercover intelligence gathering operations.

However, the full report will not be published as the FBI deemed that some content was too sensitive for public viewing; but a summary of the report was made available by the OIG and has pointed that the FBI’s computer systems were a major contributing factor. As well, there were no mechanisms in place to prevent employees from “double-dipping” and requesting funds from both the FBI headquarters and the local offices.

Field divisions all have different procedures for handling telecommunications expenses, which are primarily used for wiretapping and phone lines used to deliver surveillance information. The OIG audit assessed 990 payments made by five field divisions and found that more than half were not paid on time. The late payments have resulted investigations to be terminated.

“We also found that late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence including an instance where delivery of intercept information required by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) order was halted due to untimely payment,” the summary said.

According to Ars Technica, the FBI is currently using an outdated computer system and has not seen a major overhaul since 1986. This is because many attempts have usually resulted in failures. The last planned upgrade, the $170 million Virtual Cast File system, was so dysfunctional that it had to be scrapped. The latest attempt, called Sentinel, is expected to cost $425 million and is to be operational in 2009.

Revelations of the FBI’s mistakes aren’t that new and not that surprising. The OIG had previously blasted the FBI for losing a large number of laptops and weapons. What is more disturbing is that the willingness of the phone companies that has terminated surveillance lines during investigations because of missed payments.