WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s Justice Department has asserted that the FBI can obtain telephone records of international calls made from the U.S. without any formal legal process or court oversight, according to a document obtained by McClatchy.
That assertion was revealed — perhaps inadvertently — by the department in its response to a McClatchy request for a copy of a secret Justice Department memo.
Critics say the legal position is flawed and creates a potential loophole that could lead to a repeat of FBI abuses that were supposed to have been stopped in 2006.
The controversy over the telephone records is a legacy of the Bush administration’s war on terror. Critics say the Obama administration appears to be continuing many of the most controversial tactics of that strategy, including the assertion of sweeping executive powers.
For years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI sought and obtained thousands of telephone records for international calls in an attempt to thwart potential terrorists.
The bureau devised an informal system of requesting the records from three telecommunications firms to create what one agent called a “phone database on steroids” that included names, addresses, length of service and billing information.
A federal watchdog later said a “casual” environment developed in which FBI agents and employees of the telecom companies treated Americans’ telephone records so cavalierly that one senior FBI counter-terrorism official said getting access to them was as easy as “having an ATM in your living room.”