WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation violated its own guidelines in 2013 when it investigated environmental advocates who opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, the F.B.I. acknowledged on Tuesday.
The bureau had received information about plots to damage part of the existing Keystone pipeline, which moves oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, according to federal law enforcement officials. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would create a shortcut for a significant section of the system.
As part of the investigation, agents at the F.B.I.’s field office in Houston communicated with sources, who gathered information from environmental advocates. The agents also conducted database searches on the advocates and reviewed local law enforcement reports about them. But the agents had not received approval from the head of their office and from its chief lawyer.
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Paula Antoine at a “spirit camp” set up by the Rosebud Sioux tribe near the planned route of Keystone XL in South Dakota.Grass-Roots Push in the Plains to Block the Keystone Pipeline’s PathMAY 5, 2015
That authorization was required under F.B.I. investigative guidelines intended to prevent agents from abusing powers that are most often used in national security and criminal investigations.
After an audit led by the bureau’s headquarters in Washington revealed that the agents had not received authorization, the agents asked for permission and got it. The investigation ultimately found no evidence that the protesters were plotting to damage the pipeline, and it was closed.
The Guardian first reported the investigation on Tuesday.
As the F.B.I. changed its focus to national security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it began building closer relationships with the nation’s largest companies as it worked to protect the country’s critical infrastructure. Many of those companies — like TransCanada, which owns the pipeline — are frequently targets of environmental protests, and issues of free speech and national security can become intertwined.
The F.B.I. said on Tuesday that it had not conducted a full investigation into the protesters — only an assessment, its least invasive inquiry. The bureau said it had looked into the accusations because the threats were against “the oil and gas industry, and the energy sector is considered a part of the critical infrastructure of the United States.”
It characterized the mistake by the agents as an “administrative error” that “was discovered by the F.B.I.’s internal oversight mechanisms.”
“While the F.B.I. approval levels required by internal policy were not initially obtained, once discovered, corrective action was taken, noncompliance was remedied, and the oversight was properly reported through the F.B.I.’s internal oversight mechanism,” the bureau said. “At no time did the review find that the initial justification for the assessment was improper.”
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDTMAY 12, 2015
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