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Saturday, March 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Patriot Act amplified FBI error, report says

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The FBI used expanded powers under the USA Patriot Act to demand information from banks and other companies as part of the investigation of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, wrongfully arrested in connection with the Madrid train bombings in 2004, according to a report issued Friday.

Inspector General Glenn Fine also found that, while FBI investigators did not abuse their powers in the case, the Patriot Act anti-terrorism law "amplified the consequences" of the FBI 's misidentification of a fingerprint by allowing numerous agencies to share flawed information.

The findings are part of a 273-page report by Fine's office that was declassified and released Friday. It expanded on a summary released in January.

The full report provides many new details about the treatment of Mayfield, the subject of surveillance and secret searches before he was hurriedly arrested in response to media leaks about the case. FBI examiners wrongly had identified a fingerprint found on a bag of detonators as Mayfield's and then resisted the Spanish police's conclusion that the print belonged to someone else, according to the report.

The report acknowledges that there was an "unusual similarity" between the fingerprints, confusing three FBI examiners and a court-appointed expert. But Fine's office also found that FBI examiners failed to adhere to the bureau's rules for identifying latent fingerprints and that the FBI's "overconfidence" in its skills prevented it from taking the Spanish police seriously.

The details of the missteps, Fine said in a statement, "are important to understanding the causes of the FBI Laboratory's misidentification of the fingerprint and the reasons for the changes we recommend in the laboratory's practices."

The FBI declined to comment Friday. In previous statements on the case, however, the bureau has emphasized the unusual similarities between the fingerprints and that Fine found no misconduct by FBI employees.

Mayfield's attorney, Elden Rosenthal of Portland, did not return a telephone call Friday. Mayfield filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, the FBI and several FBI employees in October 2004 alleging civil-rights violations, including a charge that he was arrested because he is a Muslim who had represented some defendants with alleged terrorism ties.

Fine's report found that although Mayfield's religion "was not the sole or primary cause" of the initial identification, it contributed to the FBI's reluctance to re-examine the case after it was challenged by Spanish police.

One of the most notable details revealed by Friday's report was the FBI's use of "national security letters," a form of administrative subpoena that allows agents to demand records from banks, telephone companies and other firms. The FBI's ability to use such letters was greatly expanded by the Patriot Act, which was reauthorized with some changes this week.

The FBI issued numerous such letters in Mayfield's case, although the exact number is censored in Fine's report. The report says "several" letters did not pertain directly to Mayfield, indicating that the FBI obtained records about other individuals as well — a move that probably would not have been allowed before the Patriot Act reforms, the report said.

The report also details a series of covert searches of Mayfield's home and office through the use of a warrant obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Another round of searches of Mayfield's office, home and vehicles was conducted May 6, 2004, but those were done under the authority of a regular criminal warrant, the report said.

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