By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
The FBI sought personal information on thousands of Americans last year from banks, Internet service providers and other companies without having to seek approval from a court, according to new data released by the Justice Department.
In a report to the top leaders of both parties in the House, the department disclosed that the FBI had issued more than 9,200 "national security letters," or NSLs, seeking detailed information about more than 3,500 U.S. citizens or legal residents in 2005.
The report, released late Friday, represents the first official count of NSL use. It was required under legislation that extended the USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law.
The count does not include other such letters that are issued by the FBI to obtain more limited subscriber information from companies, such as a person's name, address or other identifying data, according to the report. Sources have said that would include thousands of additional letters and may be the largest category of NSLs issued. The Washington Post reported in November that the FBI now issues more than 30,000 NSLs each year, including subscriber requests.
The Justice Department report also outlined a continued increase in the use of secret warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. The secret court that oversees the law approved a record 2,072 orders for clandestine searches or surveillance in 2005 -- an 18 percent increase from the year before.
The new statistics provide the latest measure of the government's rapidly expanding anti-terrorism activities, which include a wide range of secret warrants and powers aimed at monitoring suspicious behavior and preventing attacks.
Many of the tactics have come under criticism from civil liberties groups as intrusive and lacking in proper oversight. National security letters, for example, are a form of administrative subpoena that can be issued by scores of FBI managers around the country.
"This tells us why they didn't want to tell us in the past how many of these they were actually using," said Caroline Fredrickson, Washington legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The idea that this kind of power resides in the hands of so many people at the FBI with no court oversight is very troubling."
The government previously has declined to reveal how many NSLs have been issued by the FBI and criticized the Post report as inaccurate. A Justice Department official said yesterday that the department would not comment on how many more NSLs have been issued for subscriber data only.
At the FISA court, the number of warrants for clandestine searches and surveillance has more than doubled in the past five years, according to government figures. The court -- which historically has refused only a handful of warrant applications -- did not reject any of the government's requests last year, although two cases were withdrawn by Justice before a ruling was issued, the report said.
The Justice official said part of the increase in 2005 can be attributed to an expansion of the office that submits FISA cases.
The FBI also used a controversial section of the Patriot Act to obtain business-related records 155 times in 2005. But most of that activity was the result of temporary technical problems with an earlier statute, and the number is expected to fall dramatically this year, according to the report to Congress.