FBI Audit Prompts Calls for Reform
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Lawmakers from both parties yesterday called for limits on antiterrorism laws in response to a Justice Department report that the FBI improperly obtained telephone logs, banking records and other personal information on thousands of Americans.
The audit by the department's inspector general detailed widespread abuse of the FBI's authority to seize personal details about tens of thousands of people without court oversight through the use of national security letters.
It also found that the FBI had hatched an agreement with telephone companies allowing the agency to ask for information on more than 3,000 phone numbers -- often without a subpoena, without an emergency or even without an investigative case. In 2006, the FBI then issued blanket letters authorizing many of the requests retroactively, according to agency officials and congressional aides briefed on the effort.
The disclosures prompted a public apology from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and promises of reform from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who was the focus of a new tide of criticism from Democrats and Republicans already angry about his handling of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
"I am the person responsible," Mueller said in a hastily scheduled news conference. "I am the person accountable, and I am committed to ensuring that we correct these deficiencies and live up to these responsibilities."
Democrats and Republicans alike said Gonzales, Mueller and the Bush administration did not properly monitor the FBI and guard the privacy rights of U.S. citizens and legal residents. The report came at the end of a difficult political week for the Bush administration, after the conviction of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff in the CIA leak case and damaging allegations by fired federal prosecutors.
Top lawmakers raised the possibility that Congress would seek to curb the Justice Department's powers, most likely by placing restrictions on the USA Patriot Act antiterrorism law.
"This goes above and beyond almost everything they've done already," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who was among a host of Democrats promising investigative hearings. "It shows just how this administration has no respect for checks and balances."
Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, told reporters that Congress may "impose statutory requirements and perhaps take away some of the authority which we've already given to the FBI, since they appear not to be able to know how to use it."
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has been pressing for a review of national security letters since 2005, said the report "confirms the American people's worst fears about the Patriot Act."
A national security letter is a type of administrative subpoena that allows the FBI to demand records from banks, credit-reporting agencies and other companies without the supervision of a judge. The Patriot Act significantly expanded the FBI's ability to use them, and a reauthorization of the law last year required the audit that was issued yesterday.
The findings by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine were so at odds with previous assertions by the Bush administration that Capitol Hill was peppered yesterday with retraction letters from the Justice Department attempting to correct statements in earlier testimony and briefings. Gonzales and other officials had repeatedly portrayed national security letters as a well-regulated tool necessary for the prevention of terrorist attacks.