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The FBI Admits to Spying on NYT and WaPo Reporters in 2004

Without warrants. Without the approval of the deputy attorney general. Without, apparently, any good reason.
 
 
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In the dull drone of a late Friday afternoon in Washington in August -- you know, when absolutely nothing happens? -- FBI Director Robert Muller called Bill Keller and Len Downie, executive editors of the New York Times and Washington Post, to inform them that in 2004, the bureau spied on reporters for their papers in Indonesia. Without warrants. Without even the approval of the deputy attorney general. Without, apparently, any good reason.

The records were apparently sought as part of a terrorism investigation, but the F.B.I. did not explain what was being investigated or why the reporters' phone records were considered relevant.

The Justice Department places a high bar on the collection of reporters' records in investigations because of First Amendment concerns, and obtaining such records requires the approval of the deputy attorney general. That requirement was not followed when the F.B.I. obtained the records of two reporters for The Times in Indonesia, Raymond Bonner and Jane Perlez, as well as two reporters there for The Post, Ellen Nakashima and Natasha Tampubolon, officials said.

Mueller -- who apologized to Downie and Keller -- didn't find the surveillance records on his own. The only reason he even had to disclose the spying was because Glenn Fine, the Justice Dept.'s inspector general, discovered it. All this happened in spite of what the FBI constantly says is its own rigorous civil-liberties protections in cases of so-called "exigent letters" -- demands for communications records made to telecom carriers that circumvent any judicial approval. The ACLU's Jameel Jaffer comments:

Spencer Ackerman is a senior reporter at the Washington Independent. His personal blog is Too Hot For TNR .