This had to be terribly embarrassing to the image-conscious FBI.

An audit by the Justice Department's inspector general found that telephone companies have cut off FBI wiretaps in sensitive criminal and intelligence investigations because the bureau neglected to pay its phone bills.

"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," said the audit report.

These are the same telecom companies beseeching Congress to shield them from liability for cooperating with the FBI in post-9/11 warrantless wiretaps when the law quite clearly seemed to require warrants from a special court.

That prompted a wonderfully snarky dig from the ACLU's national security policy counsel, Michael German, himself an ex-FBI agent. German told the Associated Press:

"It seems the telecoms, who are claiming they were just being 'good patriots' when they allowed the government to spy on us without warrants, are more than willing to pull the plug on national security investigations when the government falls behind on its bills. To put it bluntly, it sounds as though the telecoms believe it when the FBI says the warrant is in the mail but not when they say the check is in the mail."

A heavily edited version of the audit on the Justice Department's Web site indicates that the failure to pay its bills on time was due to the FBI's cumbersome and red-tape-intensive reimbursement procedures than any attempt to stiff the phone companies.

Still, the bureau should pay its bills — and get warrants.

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