Patriot Act Partly Blamed in Madrid Case

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

The FBI used expanded powers under the USA Patriot Act to demand information from banks and other companies as part of the investigation of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, who was wrongfully arrested in connection with the Madrid train bombings in 2004, according to a report issued yesterday.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine also found that although FBI investigators did not abuse any of its powers in the case, the Patriot Act anti-terrorism law "amplified the consequences" of the FBI's misidentification of a fingerprint by allowing numerous agencies to share flawed information.

The findings are part of a 273-page report by Fine's office that was declassified and released yesterday. It expanded on a summary released in January.

The full report provides many new details about the treatment of Mayfield, who was the subject of surveillance and secret searches before he was hurriedly arrested in response to media leaks about the case. FBI examiners had wrongly identified a fingerprint found on a bag of detonators as Mayfield's and then resisted the Spanish police's conclusion that the print belonged to someone else, according to the report.

The report acknowledges that there was an "unusual similarity" between the fingerprints, confusing three FBI examiners and a court-appointed expert. But Fine's office also found that FBI examiners failed to adhere to the bureau's own rules for identifying latent fingerprints and that the FBI's "overconfidence" in its own skills prevented it from taking the Spanish police seriously.

The details of the missteps, Fine said in a statement, "are important to understanding the causes of the FBI Laboratory's misidentification of the fingerprint and the reasons for the changes we recommend in the laboratory's practices."

The FBI declined to comment yesterday. But in previous statements on the case, the bureau has emphasized the unusual similarities between the fingerprints and that Fine found no misconduct by FBI employees. The FBI has implemented a series of reforms aimed at preventing such a case in the future, officials have said.

Mayfield's attorney, Elden Rosenthal of Portland, Ore., did not return a telephone call yesterday. Mayfield filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, the FBI and several FBI employees in October 2004 alleging civil rights violations, including a charge that he was arrested because he is a Muslim who had represented some defendants with alleged terrorism ties.

Fine's report found that although Mayfield's religion "was not the sole or primary cause" of the initial identification, it contributed to the FBI's reluctance to reexamine the case after it was challenged by the Spanish police.

One of the most notable details revealed by yesterday's report was the FBI's use of "national security letters," a form of administrative subpoena that allows agents to demand records from banks, telephone companies and other firms. The FBI's ability to use such letters was greatly expanded by the Patriot Act, which was reauthorized with some changes this week.

The FBI issued numerous such letters in Mayfield's case, although the exact number is censored in Fine's report. The report says "several" of the letters did not directly pertain to Mayfield, indicating that the FBI obtained records about other individuals as well -- a move that likely would not have been allowed before the Patriot Act reforms, the report said.

The report also details a series of covert searches of Mayfield's home and office through the use of a warrant obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Another round of searches of Mayfield's office, home and vehicles was also conducted on May 6, 2004, but those were done under the authority of a regular criminal warrant, the report said.

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