FBI admits misuse of Patriot Act power

Justice Department finds widespread problems

March 10, 2007|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,Los Angeles Times

Washington -- The FBI acknowledged yesterday that some of its agents had improperly obtained confidential records of American citizens in several dozen cases.

The disclosure drew swift criticism from Capitol Hill and warnings that Congress would move to amend the USA Patriot Act and limit the bureau's powers.

A scathing report issued yesterday 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 issuance of letters that "circumvented" Justice Department rules and regulations, and a record-keeping system that was in such disarray that annual reports to Congress substantially understated the number of subpoenas the agency was issuing.

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

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

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III took responsibility for failing to establish an adequate monitoring system for the antiterrorism measure.

"How could this happen, who is accountable?" Mueller said in a briefing with reporters. "And the answer to that is I am to be held accountable."

He mentioned problems with training and oversight of personnel as well as the bureau audit system and announced steps to overhaul the process.

Mueller's boss, Attorney General 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 securityl letters," Gonzales told a conference of privacy experts yesterday. "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.

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

Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, also said they would haul Mueller and Gonzales in for testimony 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 former chairman and ranking Republican.

The report by Inspector General Glenn Fine presented a troubling 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, and a failure to establish clear policies.

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

Fine said that in a review of 77 FBI case files in four field offices that 17 of the files, or 22 percent, contained violations that had not been identified by the field office or reported to FBI headquarters as required.

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

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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