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Counterterrorism officials in FBI headquarters slowed an investigation into a possible conspirator in the 2005 London bombings by forcing a field agent to return documents acquired from a U.S. university. Why? Because the agent received the documents through a lawful subpoena, while headquarters wanted him to demand the records under the USA Patriot Act, using a power the FBI did not have, but desperately wanted.
The strange episode is recounted in newly declassified documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents shed new light on how senior FBI officials' determination to gain independence from judicial oversight slowed its own investigation, and led the bureau's director to offer inaccurate testimony to Congress. The revelations are likely to play a key role in Capitol Hill hearings Tuesday and Wednesday on the FBI's use of so-called national security letters, or NSLs
FBI agents have relied heavily on the power, issuing more than 100,000 NSLs in 2004 and 2005 combined. The first audit of the FBI's use of the power found the agents became sloppy in their use of the power and one HQ office went rogue and issued hundreds of fake emergency requests for phone records.