By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN, Associated Press Writer
The FBI engaged in widespread and serious misuse of its authority in
illegally gathering telephone, e-mail and financial records of
Americans and foreigners while hunting terrorists, the Justice
Department's chief inspector said Tuesday.
The FBI's failure to establish sufficient controls or oversight for
collecting the information through so-called national security letters
constituted "serious and unacceptable" failures, said Glenn A. Fine,
the internal watchdog who revealed the data-gathering abuses in a
130-page report last week.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Fine said he did not
believe the problems were intentional, but were generally the result
of confusion and carelessness.
"It really was unacceptable and inexcusable what happened here," Fine
said under questioning.
Democrats said that Fine's findings were an example of how the Justice
Department has used broad counterterrorism authorities Congress
granted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to trample on privacy
"This was a serious breach of trust," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.,
the Judiciary chairman. "The department had converted this tool into a
handy shortcut to illegally gather vast amounts of private information
while at the same time significantly underreporting its activities to
Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the committee's former
Republican chairman, said: "I hope that this would be a lesson to the
FBI that they can't get away with this and expect to maintain public
support," said "Let this be a warning."
Other Republicans, however, said the FBI's expanded spying powers were
vital to tracking terrorists.
"The problem is enforcement of the law, not the law itself," said Rep.
Lamar Smith (news, bio, voting record) of Texas, the committee's
senior GOP member. "We need to be vigilant to make sure these problems
Valerie Caproni, the FBI's general counsel, took responsibility for
the abuses detailed in Fine's report.
"We're going to have to work to get the trust of this committee back,
and we know that's what we have to do, and we're going to do it," she
In a review of headquarters files and a sampling of just four of the
FBI's 56 field offices, Fine found 48 violations of law or
presidential directives during 2003-2005 and estimated that "a
significant number of ... violations throughout the FBI have not been
identified or reported."
The bureau has launched an audit of all 56 field offices to determine
the full extent of the problem. The Senate Judiciary Committee is to
hear Wednesday from Fine and FBI Director Robert Mueller on the same
A key concern in Congress is whether the USA Patriot Act, which
substantially loosened controls over the letters, should be revised.
"Many of us have been saying that the potential for abuse of the
Patriot Act's national security letter authority is almost without
limit," Conyers said. "The Justice Department's total lack of internal
control and cavalier attitude toward the few legal restrictions that
exist in the act have possibly resulted in the illegal seizure of
American citizen's private information.,"
In 1986, Congress first authorized FBI agents to obtain electronic
records without approval from a judge using national security letters.
The letters can be used to acquire e-mails, telephone, travel records
and financial information, like credit and bank transactions. They can
be sent to telephone and Internet access companies, universities,
public interest organizations, nearly all libraries, financial and
In 2001, the Patriot Act eliminated any requirement that the records
belong to someone under suspicion. Now an innocent person's records
can be obtained if FBI field agents consider them merely relevant to
an ongoing terrorism or spying investigation.
Fine's review, authorized by Congress over Bush administration
objections, concluded the number of national security letters
requested by the FBI skyrocketed after the Patriot Act became
law. Each letter may contain several requests.
In 2000, the FBI issued an estimated 8,500 requests. That number
peaked in 2004 with 56,000. Overall, the FBI reported issuing 143,074
requests in national security letters between 2003 and 2005. In 2005,
53 percent were for records of U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
In a sampling of 77 case files in four FBI field offices, Fine
discovered an additional 8,850 requests that were never recorded in
the FBI's database, and he estimated there were many more nationwide.
The 48 possible violations Fine uncovered included failing to get
proper authorization, making improper requests under the law and
unauthorized collection of telephone or Internet e-mail records.
Fine said the violations were unintentional, but that conclusion has
been disputed by critics of the Patriot Act.
"What the inspector general documented shows a pattern of intentional
misconduct that goes far beyond mismanagement," said Mike German, a
former FBI agent who is a national security counsel to the American
Civil Liberties Union. More than 700 "exigent circumstances" letters
"said the FBI had already asked for grand jury subpoenas although the
agents knew they hadn't. Some of the abuses were, frankly, outrageous.
Some of the _continuing_ wiretaps are outrageous."
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Isn't it always _good_ to see various
government agencies fighting with each other? Now, if the US Department
of Injustice thought that the FBI's behavior was 'outrageous' then you
know it probably was. It sort of reminds me of last night's episode
(one of several) on CSI-SVU. Police officers Elliott Stabler and his
partner Olivia Benson get locked up by FBI agents and held incommunicado
for a long time. Ooooh, was Elliott pissed! He has the audacity to
complain to one and all that his 'civil liberties are being violated.'
Well, gee whiz, officer, welcome to the real world with the rest of
us. USA Network does CSI-SVU seven nights per week, not quite but
nearly 24 hours per day on their cable here. Always inspirational