Misuse of Patriot Act (of course - the act was made to be misused)
F.B.I. Head Admits Mistakes in Use of Security Act – by DAVID STOUT/NY Times
WASHINGTON — Bipartisan outrage erupted on Friday on Capitol Hill as Robert S. Mueller III , the F.B.I. director, conceded that the bureau had improperly used the USA Patriot Act to obtain information about people and businesses.
Mr. Mueller embraced responsibility for the lapses, detailed in a report by the inspector general of the Justice Department, and promised to do everything he could to avoid repeating them. But his apologies failed to defuse the anger of lawmakers in both parties.
“How could this happen?” Mr. Mueller asked rhetorically in a briefing at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Who is to be held accountable? And the answer to that is I am to be held accountable.”
The report found many instances when national security letters, which allow the bureau to obtain records from telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit companies and other businesses without a judge’s approval, were improperly, and sometimes illegally, used.
Moreover, record keeping was so slipshod, the report found, that the actual number of national security letters exercised was often understated when the bureau reported on them to Congress, as required.
The repercussions were felt far beyond Mr. Mueller’s office. Democratic lawmakers, newly in control of Congress, promised hearings on the problems. Several Republicans expressed anger and dismay, as well.
“It is time to place meaningful checks on the Bush administration’s ability to misuse the Patriot Act by overusing national security letters,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy , the Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “National security letters are a powerful tool, and when they are misused, they can do great harm to innocent people.” Mr. Leahy said his panel would hold extensive hearings on the inspector general’s findings.
In the House, Representative Silvestre Reyes, the Texas Democrat who heads the Intelligence Committee, said that the inspector general had painted “a highly troubling picture of mismanagement” and that it was up to Congress to “conduct vigorous oversight of this situation.”
Among the Republicans voicing anger was Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “When it comes to national security, sloppiness should be reserved for the hog lot, not the F.B.I.,” said Mr. Grassley.
Mr. Mueller attributed the inaccuracies to “deficiencies in the database” and the failure to retain signed copies of national security letters in all cases.
“We have already taken steps to correct these deficiencies,” he said.
Mr. Mueller emphasized that the report determined that the lapses were a result of errors rather than criminal or malicious intent, that apparently no person or business was harmed and that the inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, agreed that the national security letters were a vital tool in the post-Sept. 11 world.
But he conceded that the abuses, however unintentional, were contrary to American traditions of law and respect for privacy. And even if the actual number of mistakes is relatively small, “nonetheless it is a serious problem,” he said, promising to do whatever he could to reassure skeptics on Capitol Hill.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales noted that the information discussed throughout Mr. Fine’s document was the kind that the bureau “would have been entitled to if we had followed the rules.”
But Mr. Gonzales, who was by coincidence speaking to reporters after a privacy conference here, said he viewed Mr. Fine’s conclusions as serious.
Mr. Mueller left open the possibility that some F.B.I. employees might be disciplined for their errors involving national security letters. In response to a question, he said there had been “no discussion” on whether he should step down.
The inspector general traced the increase in the use of the letters after Sept. 11, 2001. There were 8,500 in 2000, the year before the Patriot Act broadened surveillance powers. There were 39,000 in 2003, 56,000 in 2004 and 47,000 in 2005, the years covered in Mr. Fine’s review.
But his office found that the number of letters in case files was 20 percent higher than those recorded in the central legal office at the bureau. Those discrepancies, plus slowness in gathering and transmitting data, meant that the numbers of national security requests reported to Congress were “significantly understated,” Mr. Fine wrote.
Although the investigation uncovered no examples of lives turned upside down or businesses disrupted, the privacy problems went beyond the theoretical in a few instances. One letter demanding telephone toll-billing records yielded voice messages because a recipient was overly cooperative.
Another letter demanding e-mail transaction records was answered by e-mail contents and images.
In other incidents, though rare, national security letters seeking data on individuals were answered by information on the wrong people “due to either to F.B.I. typographical errors or errors by the recipients” of the letters, Mr. Fine wrote.
Moreover, he added, mistakes of that nature were not always reported promptly to the legal office, as regulations require.
The inspector general also criticized the bureau for using what are called exigent letters in improper circumstances. An exigent letter is meant to be used to obtain information in an extreme emergency like a kidnapping when the bureau has already sought subpoenas for the information. In too many instances, such letters were used in nonemergencies when the bureau had not requested subpoenas, Mr. Fine wrote.
Some of the sternest critics of the bureau were not mollified by Mr. Mueller’s apologies and promises.
“This confirms some of our worst suspicions,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union .
Mr. Romero scoffed at the notion that Mr. Gonzales could help turn around the problem.
“This attorney general cannot be part of the solution,” Mr. Romero said. “He is part of the problem.”
Mr. Romero said the Patriot Act, which Congress re-enacted a year ago after extensive debate, should be given another look, so the provisions on national security letters could be improved.
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee (and, like Mr. Leahy, a former prosecutor), told reporters that the bureau had apparently “badly misused national security letters.”
“This is, regrettably, part of an ongoing process where the federal authorities are not really sensitive to privacy and go far beyond what we have authorized,” Mr. Specter said.
Senator Russell D. Feingold , a Wisconsin Democrat on the judiciary panel who voted against the original Patriot Act, said the inspector general’s inquiry “proves that ‘trust us’ doesn’t cut it” when it comes to the F.B.I.