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Frequent Errors In FBI's Secret Records Requests

Lanny Davis, another board member and a former attorney in the Clinton White House , said his recent briefing by the FBI left him "very concerned about what I regard to be serious potential infringements of privacy and civil liberties by the FBI and their use of national security letters. It is my impression that they too regard this as very serious."

Fine's audit, which was limited to 77 case files in four FBI field offices, found that those offices did not even generate accurate counts of the national security letters they issued, omitting about one in five letters from the reports they sent to headquarters in Washington. Those inaccurate numbers, in turn, were used as the basis for required reports to Congress.

Officials said they believe that the 48 known problems may be the tip of the iceberg in an internal oversight system that one of them described as "shoddy."

The report identified several instances in which the FBI used a tool known as "exigent letters" to obtain information urgently, promising that the requests would be covered later by grand jury subpoenas or national security letters. In several of those cases, the subpoenas were never sent, the review found.

The review also found several instances in which agents claimed there were exigent circumstances when none existed. The FBI recently ended the practice of using exigent letters in national security cases, officials said last night.

The report, mandated by Congress over the Bush administration's objections, is to be presented to several House and Senate committees today. But senior officials, speaking with permission on the condition that they not be identified, said the Bush administration has already responded vigorously to the audit's findings.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales learned of the findings three weeks ago and "was incensed when he was told the contents of the report," according to a Justice Department official.

"The attorney general commends the work of the inspector general in uncovering serious problems in the FBI's use of NSLs," said Tasia Scolinos, a spokeswoman for Gonzales. "He has told [FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III] that these past mistakes will not be tolerated, and has ordered the FBI and the department to restore accountability and to put in place safeguards to ensure greater oversight and controls over the use of national security letters."

FBI and Justice Department officials have long described national security letters as an indispensable tool in combating terrorism, and Fine's report, according to one official who cited excerpts, said investigators told the inspector general that the letters "contributed significantly to many counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations." Fine did not make an independent assessment of the efficacy of the letters as investigative tools.

FBI procedures require that any possible violation of law or regulation on national security letters be reported to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board within 14 days of discovery. Of the 26 breaches it discovered before Fine's review, the FBI referred 19 to the oversight board.

Among the responses officials highlighted last night is a tracking database under development by the FBI to ensure that its accounting of national security letters is accurate. One official said the FBI would begin deployment of the system in four of its 56 field offices by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the official said, each office will be required to "hand count" the numbers every month.

Gonzales, officials said, has ordered the department's national security division and inspections division to begin audits next month of a sampling of national security letters in every field office. About 15 offices should be audited by the end of the year, the official said.

Gonzales has also ordered that he chief counsel of every field office personally sign off on every national security letter, a practice that has been encouraged but not required until now.

The office of Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has established a working group to consider how much of the information gathered by national security letters should be retained and whether any of it should be purged. After the Patriot Act was passed, the Bush administration eliminated the FBI's requirement that irrelevant personal information from case files be discarded after cases are closed.

Mueller has ordered improved training of agents involved in national security cases and better record-keeping. Last May, changes began with the fixing of databases.

A senior group of FBI inspectors has been asked to review the conduct of agents and their supervisors to determine if any should be disciplined for mistakes.

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