Lawmakers Vow Hearings on FBI Errors
Friday, March 9, 2007; 6:48 PM
Members of Congress vowed today to conduct investigative hearings -- and consider reining in parts of the Patriot Act -- following revelations of pervasive problems in the FBI's use of national security letters to secretly obtain telephone, e-mail and financial records in terrorism cases.
Amid a growing furor on Capitol Hill over the disclosures in a Justice Department inspector general's report, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III publicly took responsibility for the lapses but defended the use of national security letters as a vital tool in the war on terrorism.
In a news conference, Mueller acknowledged that the FBI did not have appropriate policies in place to handle some of its new authorities under the Patriot Act and did not always adhere to the policies that the agency did establish.
"I am to be held accountable," Mueller said, adding that he should have set up an audit system, internal controls and a new regimen of training and oversight to resolve "confusion and uncertainty in the field" over the of national security letters.
However, the FBI director dismissed the idea of offering to resign, saying there has been "no discussion of that." And he said the FBI already has taken steps to correct the deficiencies identified by the inspector general.
Mueller delivered his mea culpa as the nearly 200-page inspector general's report circulated on Capitol Hill, where members of the House and Senate judiciary and intelligence committees were briefed on the findings that the FBI mishandled one of its potent anti-terrorism tools. The committees today received a classified version of the report.
The problems included failing to provide proper documentation to justify the use of the national security letters and significantly underreporting to Congress the number of times the special authority was used. The reports to Congress are required by law. The Washington Post reported on the findings in today's editions.
The inspector general found that the violations were not deliberate, but that they could be widespread.
The inaccuracies and problems disclosed in the inspector general's report prompted Justice Department officials to send letters today to various congressional committees and individual lawmakers correcting past testimony in open and classified hearings, briefings and letters. The effort included correcting figures about the previously underreported usage of national security letters, as well as inaccurate assurances that safeguards were being followed.
One such letter was sent by Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Hertling to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, to correct representations made to him on Nov. 23, 2005, after a Washington Post story raised concerns about the scope of the national security letter program and the safeguards officials were using.
"We have determined that certain statements in our November 23 letter need clarification," Hertling wrote, adding that "we fully recognize that Congress's ability to conduct oversight is hampered by a failure to provide accurate information."
In December 2005, The Post published a lengthy response to the Justice Department letter. The original Post story the previous month prompted lawmakers to demand an inquiry by the inspector general, leading to the report that was released today, according to sponsors of the Patriot Act amendment that required the report.