updated 3/5/2008 11:51:48 AM ET 2008-03-05T16:51:48

An internal Justice Department report has found more improper use of national security letters by FBI agents seeking personal data on Americans during terror and spy investigations, Director Robert Mueller said Wednesday.

Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the privacy breach by FBI agents and lawyers occurred a year before the bureau enacted sweeping new reforms to prevent future lapses.

Details on the abuses will be outlined in the coming days in a report by the Justice Department's inspector general.

The report is a follow-up to an audit by the inspector general a year ago that found the FBI demanded personal data on people from banks, telephone and Internet providers and credit bureaus without official authorization and in non-emergency circumstances between 2003 and 2005.

Mueller, noting senators' concerns about Americans' civil and privacy rights, said the new report "will identify issues similar to those in the report issued last March." The similarities, he said, are because the time period of the two studies "predates the reforms we now have in place."

He added: "We are committed to ensuring that we not only get this right, but maintain the vital trust of the American people."

Call for 'better chain of command'
Mueller offered no additional details. Several other Justice Department and FBI officials familiar with this year's findings have said privately the upcoming report will show the letters were wrongly used at a similar rate as during the previous three years.

In contrast to the outrage by Congress and civil liberties groups after last year's report was issued, Mueller's disclosure drew no initial criticism from senators at Wednesday's hearing.

Speaking before the FBI chief, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., urged Mueller to be more vigilant in correcting what he called "widespread illegal and improper use of national security letters."

"Everybody wants to stop terrorists. But we also, though, as Americans, we believe in our privacy rights and we want those protected," Leahy said. "There has to be a better chain of command for this. You cannot just have an FBI agent who decides he'd like to obtain Americans' records, bank records or anything else and do it just because they want to."

National security letters are administrative subpoenas that can be issued under the USA Patriot Act in terror and spy investigations.

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