Keep an eye on the FBI

November 07, 2005

FBI agents have spied on Americans without following even their own secret rules, sometimes for as long as 15 months, according to recently released documents. If it cannot follow its current rules, the agency certainly cannot be trusted with even more spy powers, and with no requirement to report its actions - and its breaches - to Congress. But that may well happen if Congress reauthorizes the House version of the Patriot Act in the next few weeks.

The FBI investigated hundreds of potential violations of federal law or bureau policy related to how its agents performed secret surveillance operations from 2002 to 2004, according to reports released by the agency to the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center. Among the egregious actions: reading bank statements and e-mail without permission, improperly conducting physical searches, and following a suspect for 15 months before applying for permission to do so.

Thirteen of these breaches were deemed serious enough to be referred to the Intelligence Oversight Board, a presidential panel charged with enforcing surveillance laws. Congress, on the other hand, heard nothing of these or any other alleged misdoings. That must change.

Legislative oversight is the check on renegade operatives; it ensures accountability and helps convince citizens that the government isn't Big Brother. While it's true that some information about secret surveillance must stay secret, the number of cases, their type and their outcomes need not. Congress also can hold confidential committee hearings for detailed reporting.

The bureau blames most of the errors it has found on inexperienced agents, newly transferred to clandestine operations during the FBI's shift to fighting terrorism at home. But it also said it has found an additional 113 violations in the past year - two years after the big shift. That's too long a learning curve.

This might be the tip of an iceberg of wanton abuses, as the Electronic Privacy Information Center and others suggest. It might not.

Americans would like to know. It's the job of Congress to find out.

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