In court hearings stretching back two decades in Pittsburgh and nationwide, FBI agents swore to federal judges that they must remain mum on a controversial surveillance program that nets large amounts of cellphone and Internet traffic to keep criminals from figuring out how to evade the electronic dragnet.
A Tribune-Review investigation found the bureau goes to even greater lengths to hide the cost of gear and projects designed to snare the electronic signals of cellphones, tablet computers and other devices that rely on wireless technology.
In nearly 5,000 pages of heavily redacted documents the Trib obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, FBI censors blotted out the types and names of wireless interceptors the agency purchases, how much it spends on them and even the identities of vendors who supply the technology.
“It’s taxpayer money, so taxpayers have a right to know how it’s being spent,” said Neil Gordon, an investigator at the Washington-based nonprofit Project On Government Oversight.
FBI spokesman Christopher M. Allen wrote in an email that all redactions were lawful and designed to keep criminals from learning secrets about the technology.
He declined to comment on any issues the Trib raised.
Secrecy at a cost
The censorship in the FBI files appears to fit into a larger agency strategy to keep classified the entire process of procuring cell site simulators.
The chief tactic involves relying on no-bid purchasing contracts, regardless of the steep price tag for goods and services, according to internal files.
A 2003 order to an unnamed company, for example, indicated that there would be “no advertisement” on upcoming FBI contracting in order to cloak news about the technology. Another message said no competitors would be “given the opportunity to express written or oral interest in this procurement,” even when those companies could provide the technology, perhaps at cheaper prices.
FBI officials repeatedly used “sole source justification” as the reason for keeping the procurement process secret — a decision that forced the agency to buy “brand name only” equipment at retail prices, according to the files. Those who sell the surveillance technology to the FBI or consult on purchases must sign nondisclosure agreements, which were heavily redacted in the files provided to the Trib.
The FBI’s sole-source policy continued long into procurement programs, the files reveal, even when applied to development projects plagued with cost overruns or delays.
For example, despite ongoing concerns about recurring problems in an unnamed project the FBI financed, a 2011 letter to an unknown vendor promised that no “cost estimate will be required and furnished to us.”
Public records kept by other federal departments revealed three of the FBI’s top surveillance gear suppliers: Boeing and its Digital Receiver Technology subsidiary in Maryland; Nebraska-based software producer Pen-Link Ltd; and the kingpin of the American cell tower simulator market, Florida-based Harris Corp.
The companies garnered at least $30.8 million in agency sales during the past dozen years. Harris alone secured 68 FBI contracts worth at least $23.7 million. Purchases included Harris devices such as the StingRay, Amberjack, Kingfish and Gossamer trackers, plus spare parts and classroom instruction.
Harris and the other companies declined to comment, citing secrecy agreements tied to classified national security programs.
A publicly traded company with $5 billion in annual revenue, Harris is known for secrecy, filing requests with the Federal Communications Commission to cloak the capabilities of its products and urging local and state police clients to keep descriptions of spy gizmos and their menus of prices confidential.
Gordon, from the oversight project, told the Trib that companies often request secrecy in procurement because they don’t want competitors to poach technology. Other times, he said, it’s used because bureaucrats want to hide their work from Congress and taxpayers, a tactic that helps them avoid accountability when they bungle a project.
“What you’re seeing at FBI is reflected throughout the government,” said Gordon, who established the nonprofit’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database. “You see the secrecy, the stovepiping and the lack of oversight. But I think it’s slowly starting to change here.
“There’s ongoing debate in Congress over many of the secret — and expensive — surveillance projects that have come to light from Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency. There’s now an effort in Congress to do something.”
Former contractor Snowden, who is a fugitive in Russia, leaked documents revealing the vast accumulation of phone and Internet records by the NSA, CIA and FBI since 2006.
President Obama has vowed to reform federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies that accumulated troves of personal information about ordinary Americans, but critics have complained about his slow progress.
Last week, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., filed a class-action lawsuit to force quicker changes and named FBI Director James Comey as a defendant.
Docs paint murky picture
The FBI redacted most internal references to how cell site simulators — purchased with noncompetitive contracts — functioned in the field, but a 2007 email from a FBI employee, whose name was redacted, claimed the technology was “affecting the bottom line on the street. We track and locate targets quickly, efficiently and by following all the rules and regulations.”
A 2007 message from FBI’s Operational Technology section praised an unidentified device’s “new functionality” because it would “significantly enhance the bureau’s ability to conduct (redacted).”
Representatives at an unknown contractor, who were pleased with “efficient” devices that made a “leap” over previous models, asked the FBI in 2010 for intellectual property rights to the technology. Officials, however, voiced concern that the patent and trademark process would publicly reveal covert capabilities.
The FBI redacted other passages concerning the controversy.
Other pages paint a less optimistic assessment of clandestine projects the FBI was funding to build the next generation of data collection technology.
One problem-plagued program was apparently planned in 2009 and started a year later, at an unidentified firm with which the FBI was “intricately involved” on previous projects.
In an early 2011 memo updating superiors on the program, an unnamed project engineer reported that risks were identified during the project’s initial phases and the prototype suffered from “unreliability.” Another message disclosed “two areas of issues” dogging the clandestine research, but FBI censors redacted what they were and erased much of the “going forward” plan meant to address delays, rising costs and an unidentified feature that the FBI did not want but which was built into the technology.
The FBI was the culprit behind problems in some projects. A 2012 file revealed the agency determined that “new requirements have been identified” that needed to be added to covert technology being built by an unidentified contractor, a move the agency realized would likely trigger delays.
Other files raise questions about whether the FBI’s obsession with secrecy hampered the acquisition process. For example, an unidentified boss in the Operational Technology Division complained in an internal 2011 memo about being kept in the dark for three years about “previously undisclosed projects.”
“There also have been times when I have learned of projects and capabilities that hadn’t been briefed to me by our own personnel,” the official wrote, “and learned that (redacted) continues to be prohibited by the FBI project leads from briefing me on some projects. This troubles me.”
Carl Prine is a Trib Total Media investigative reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7826.