Anger grows over abuses by FBI
The disclosures prompted calls from lawmakers from both parties for limits on anti-terrorism laws.
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON -- FBI Director Robert Mueller issued a public apology Friday and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales promised reforms in response to a Justice Department report that the FBI improperly obtained telephone logs, banking records and other personal information on thousands of Americans.
The audit by the department's inspector general detailed widespread abuse of the FBI's authority to seize personal details about tens of thousands of people without court oversight through the use of national-security letters. It found, for example, that the FBI hatched an agreement with telephone companies allowing them to issue 739 emergency letters asking for more than 3,000 phone numbers -- often without subpoenas, an emergency or even an actual investigative case.
The FBI then covered its tracks in 2006 by issuing blanket letters authorizing many of the requests retroactively, according to FBI officials and congressional aides briefed on the effort.
The disclosures prompted calls from lawmakers from both parties for limits on anti-terrorism laws. Gonzales was the focus of a new tide of criticism from Democrats and Republicans already angry about his handling of the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
"I am the person responsible," Mueller said in a hastily scheduled news conference. "I am the person accountable, and I am committed to ensuring that we correct these deficiencies and live up to these responsibilities."
Gonzales left open the possibility of pursuing criminal charges against FBI agents or lawyers who improperly used the Patriot Act in pursuit of suspected terrorists and spies.
Mueller said he had not been asked to resign, nor had he discussed doing so with other officials. He said employees would probably face disciplinary actions, not criminal charges, following an internal investigation of how the violations occurred.
The basics of national-security letters
In 1986, Congress first authorized the FBI to obtain electronic records without approval from a judge.
Such demands for information, known as national-security letters, can be used to acquire e-mails, telephone, travel records and financial information, including credit and bank transactions. They can be sent to telephone and Internet-access companies, universities, public-interest organizations, nearly all libraries, financial and credit companies.
Originally, the FBI could only get records of people suspected of being agents of a foreign power. In 1993, the authority was expanded to cover records of anyone suspected of communicating with foreign agents about terrorism or espionage.
The Patriot Act in 2001 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 a terrorism or spying investigation.
The Associated Press
Democrats and Republicans alike said Gonzales, Mueller and the Bush administration failed to properly monitor the FBI and guard the privacy rights of U.S. citizens and legal residents. The report came at the end of a difficult political week for the Bush administration, after the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff in the CIA leak case and damaging allegations by fired U.S. attorneys.
Top lawmakers raised the possibility that Congress would seek to curb the Justice Department's powers, most likely by placing restrictions on the Patriot Act anti-terrorism law.
"This goes above and beyond almost everything they've done already," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who was among a host of Democrats promising investigative hearings. "It shows just how this administration has no respect for checks and balances."
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, told reporters that Congress may "impose statutory requirements and perhaps take away some of the authority which we've already given to the FBI, since they appear not to be able to know how to use it."
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the audit shows "a major failure by Justice to uphold the law."
"If the Justice Department is going to enforce the law, it must follow it as well," said Hoekstra, of Michigan.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has been pressing for a review of national-security letters since 2005, said the report "confirms the American people's worst fears about the Patriot Act."
A national-security letter is a type of administrative subpoena that allows the FBI to demand records from banks, credit-reporting agencies and other companies without the supervision of a judge. The Patriot Act significantly expanded the FBI's ability to use them, and a reauthorization of the law last year required the audit that was issued Friday.
The findings by Inspector General Glenn Fine were so at odds with previous claims by the Bush administration that Capitol Hill was peppered Friday with retraction letters from the Justice Department attempting to correct statements from earlier testimony and briefings. Gonzales and other officials had repeatedly portrayed national-security letters as a well-regulated tool necessary for the prevention of terrorist attacks.
One such letter, sent to Specter by Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling, sought to correct a 2005 letter that attacked a Washington Post story about national-security letters. "We have determined that certain statements in our November 23 letter need clarification," Hertling wrote.
Fine's 199-page unclassified report found that the FBI issued more than 143,000 requests for information on more than 52,000 people through national-security letters from 2003 to 2005, but dramatically understated those numbers in reports to Congress required by law. Nearly half the people targeted were U.S. citizens or legal residents, and the proportion of such "U.S. persons" increased over the three-year period, the report said.
In examining a small sample of security letters issued by four FBI offices, Fine also discovered that letters were improperly issued about 16 percent of the time. In the sample of 293 letters, the FBI identified 26 potential violations but missed 22 possible others, the report said.
The report also details how, after obtaining sweeping new anti-terrorism powers under the Patriot Act in late 2001, the FBI did not establish basic training and record-keeping procedures to ensure that civil liberties were protected. That kept the FBI from giving Congress accurate numbers on how often it used national-security letters, the investigation found.
"During the time period covered by this review, the FBI had no policy or directive requiring the retention of signed copies of the national-security letters or any requirement to upload national-security letters to the FBI's case management system," the report said.
The findings are reminiscent of previous reports, including many by Fine's office, that have detailed the FBI's chronic inability to keep track of items ranging from guns to laptops to documents related to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case. Fine determined that the latest violations were not deliberate, but could be widespread.
Gonzales described the problems as unacceptable and left open the possibility of criminal charges. He ordered further investigation.
"Once we get that information, we'll be in a better position to assess what kinds of steps should be taken," Gonzales said after a speech to privacy officials.
At the same time, Gonzales stressed that he believed that "the kinds of errors we saw here were due to questionable judgment or lack of attention, not intentional wrongdoing." Mueller also said "the number of abuses is exceptionally small" compared to the broad use of national-security letters, and said "no one has been damaged" by the errors.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has sued the government over its use of national-security letters, said the report shows the need for an independent investigation of the Justice Department's anti-terrorism tactics.
"It confirms our greatest suspicions about the abuse of Patriot Act powers and, specifically, national-security-letter powers," Romero said.
Aside from the findings about national-security letters, the report details for the first time a separate kind of emergency letter used in "exigent circumstances" modeled on letters used by New York FBI agents after the Sept. 11 attacks. The letters were issued as part of an agreement with three unidentified telephone companies and requested information with the promise of subpoenas that rarely materialized, the report found.
Mueller indicated that "we stopped the use of these letters" in May 2006. But an FBI official clarified those comments later, saying emergency letters still are used, but now promise a national-security letter rather than a subpoena.
Washington Post reporters William Branigin and Ellen Nakashima and washingtonpost.com writer Paul Kane contributed to this report. Hoekstra's comments were reported by The Associated Press.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
"Iron Man 3" kicks off a summer blockbuster season that will see hundreds of speeding, squealing, exploding, airborne, rolling and smoking vehicles in...
Post a comment