Video: FBI mistakes

updated 3/20/2007 2:43:24 PM ET 2007-03-20T18:43:24

Congress wants to know how the FBI illegally or improperly gathered telephone, e-mail and financial records of Americans and foreigners while chasing terrorists.

Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department inspector general who revealed FBI data-gathering abuses in a 130-page report last week, was to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The panel also called FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni, whose office was taken to task by Fine for inadequate supervision of the bureau's use of documents called national security letters to gather data.

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."

Patriot Act revision
The bureau has launched an audit of all 56 field offices to determine the full extent of the problem.

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee hears from Fine and FBI Director Robert Mueller on the same topic.

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," Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., said in announcing the hearings. "This report demonstrates how that potential has now become a reality.

"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," Conyers added.

'Suspicion' requirement changed to 'relevant'
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 credit companies.

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.

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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."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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