FBI Abuses May Lead to Patriot Act Limits


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

    Go to Original

    FBI Abuses May Lead to Patriot Act Limits
    By Richard B. Schmitt
    The Los Angeles Times
    Saturday 10 March 2007

Irate lawmakers threaten to rein in the bureau after reports of improperly 
obtained bank and phone data.

Washington - Angry lawmakers on Friday threatened to amend the USA Patriot Act 
and limit the FBI's powers in the wake of a disclosure that agents had 
improperly obtained confidential records of people in the United States.

A scathing report issued Friday by the inspector general of the Justice 
Department found widespread problems in how the FBI has used a form of 
administrative subpoena - known as a national security letter - to gather phone,
bank and credit information on thousands of citizens without court oversight.

The problems included the issuing of letters that circumvented Justice 
Department rules and regulations; in addition, the report found a record-keeping
system in such disarray that annual reports to Congress substantially 
understated the number of subpoenas the FBI was issuing.

The inspector general also disclosed that the bureau had an unusual contract 
with three phone companies to provide call records and subscriber information 
without legal process.

The revelation was a major embarrassment for the FBI, which had vowed to use its
investigative powers carefully when Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act last 

National security letters do not require the approval of a judge, and have long 
been popular with law enforcement. The 2001 Patriot Act made them even easier to
get in terrorism and espionage cases. The act also for the first time permitted 
FBI agents in the field to issue the letters; that authority had previously been
reserved for officials at FBI headquarters.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Friday took responsibility for failing to 
establish an adequate monitoring system for the anti-terrorism measure. "How 
could this happen, who is accountable? And the answer to that is I am to be held
accountable," Mueller said in a briefing with reporters. He cited problems with 
training and oversight of personnel, as well as the bureau audit system, and 
announced a number of steps to overhaul the process.

Mueller's boss, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, pointedly criticized the FBI and
its director for falling down on the job.

"During the discussion of the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, I believed 
that the FBI was acting responsibly in using national security letters," 
Gonzales told a conference of privacy experts Friday. "Because of the good work 
of the IG, I've come to learn that I was wrong."

Gonzales said the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility had
opened an investigation into possible misconduct by lawyers at the FBI who 
failed to monitor the subpoenas.

"Once we get that information, we'll be in a better position to assess what 
kinds of steps should be taken," Gonzales said after his speech. "There is no 
excuse for the mistakes that have been made, and we are going to make things 
right as quickly as possible."

Two influential senators Friday expressed anger at the inspector general's 
disclosures and said they were considering tightening the Patriot Act 
regulations that allow the FBI to use the national security letters with such 
wide latitude.

Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) also said they would 
call Mueller and Gonzales to testify in the coming weeks to get more answers and
determine how widespread the problem is. Leahy is chairman of the Senate 
Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Justice Department and the FBI, 
and Specter is its ranking Republican and former chairman.

"The inspector general's report shows a massive misuse by the FBI of the 
national security letters for law enforcement," Specter said. "There'll be 
oversight hearings. And I think we may have to go further than that and change 
the law, to revise the Patriot Act Š 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."

The report by Inspector Gen. Glenn A. Fine presented a picture of mismanagement 
and self-regulation gone awry. Fine said he had no evidence of intentional 
wrongdoing, but found numerous examples of FBI personnel violating internal 
guidelines and procedures, as well as a failure to establish clear policies.

The report found that the FBI had greatly underreported the number of problems 
with national security letters to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board. 
And it indicated that the violations the FBI did report were less serious than 
ones that Fine and his investigators uncovered independently.

The FBI reported just 26 possible violations to the White House oversight board 
between 2003 and 2005, most of which were minor, such as "typographical errors,"
the report found.

But the watchdog report indicated that hundreds, or even thousands, of 
potentially more serious violations went unreported. Fine said a review of 77 
FBI case files in four field offices found that 17 of the files, or 22%, 
contained violations that had not been identified by the field office or 
reported to FBI headquarters as required. Among the violations of policies and 

€ A letter for telephone billing records was issued 22 days after the authorized
period for the investigation had lapsed.

€ Full consumer credit reports were obtained during espionage investigations, 
even though the law says the information should only be available in 
international terrorism cases.

€ Educational records were improperly obtained from a North Carolina university.

€ Unauthorized information about phone numbers was received in 10 cases because 
of transcription errors and other problems by phone company providers.

Investigators also alleged that FBI headquarters circumvented the rules by 
obtaining billing records and subscriber information from three telephone 
companies on about 3,000 phone numbers without issuing national security letters
at all.

The law allows the FBI to obtain such records under "exigent" circumstances. But
the report found that the bureau, with the support of the phone companies, was 
using the power in non-emergency situations. The records were supplied between 
2003 and 2005. The report found even top FBI lawyers were unaware of the 
practice until the latter part of 2004.

The report did not name the phone companies that received letters or cooperated 
with authorities by divulging call information. Sources said those companies 
probably were among the major long-distance carriers at the time - AT&T Corp., 
MCI Inc., Sprint Corp. or Qwest Communications International Inc.

"Generally, every day, Verizon units respond to emergency requests from federal,
state and local authorities for calling records," said Peter Thonis, spokesman 
for Verizon Communications Inc. He would not comment, however, on whether the 
company or MCI - which it acquired early last year - was involved in the FBI 

    AT&T spokesman Walt Sharp referred questions to the FBI.

Sprint, now called Sprint Nextel Corp., would not disclose whether it received 
one of the letters. "Generally, Sprint doesn't comment in situations where there
is an ongoing investigation," spokeswoman Kathleen Dunleavy said.

Qwest, which has turned down other wide-ranging government requests for 
information in national security cases, also declined to comment.

The inspector general's report found that the number of national security letter
requests grew from 8,800 in 2000 to a peak of 56,000 in 2004. The total issued 
in the three-year period covered by Fine's review was 143,074.

"The authority got decentralized, and what appears to have happened is that the 
FBI never built the proper processes for accountability and review at the field 
level," said Michael Woods, a former head of the FBI national-security law 
branch who once reviewed national security letter requests.

"When all the requests went through my office, we had a really good idea about 
the legal standards, but it was slow," Woods said. "People were screaming about 
the delays."

The inspector general's report resulted from a concession made to Democrats and 
other critics of the Patriot Act during the debate over renewing the law last 

The Bush administration had fought new restrictions on the use of national 
security letters but acceded to the inspector general conducting periodic 
reviews for the public.

    How National Security Letters Are Supposed to Work:

In 1986, Congress first authorized the FBI to obtain electronic records without 
approval from a judge. Called national security letters, these demands could be 
used to acquire e-mails, telephone and travel records, and financial information
- including credit and bank transactions.

The letters could be sent to telephone and Internet access companies, 
universities, public interest organizations and nearly all libraries, plus 
financial and credit companies.

Originally, the FBI could obtain records only for people suspected of being 
agents of a foreign power. In 1993, that 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 any person's records can be obtained if FBI field 
agents consider him relevant to a terrorism or spying investigation.

    Source: The Associated Press.

Times staff writers Josh Meyer in Washington and James S. Granelli and Joseph 
Menn in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Escaping the Matrix website        http://escapingthematrix.org/
cyberjournal website               http://cyberjournal.org
Community Democracy Framework: http://cyberjournal.org/DemocracyFramework.html
subscribe cyberjournal list        mailto:•••@••.•••
Posting archives                   http://cyberjournal.org/show_archives/