By Dan Eggen and John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
One such retraction letter, sent to Specter by Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Hertling, sought to correct a 2005 letter that attacked a Washington Post story about national security letters. "We have determined that certain statements in our November 23 letter need clarification," Hertling wrote.
Fine's 199-page unclassified report found that the FBI's records showed it issued more than 143,000 requests for information on more than 52,000 people through national security letters from 2003 to 2005. But not only did the agency understate that number in required reports to Congress, the number of requests it issued was much higher.
Nearly half the people targeted were U.S. citizens or legal residents, and the proportion of such "U.S. persons" increased over the three-year period, the report said.
In examining a small sample of security letters issued by four FBI offices, Fine discovered that the letters were improperly issued about 16 percent of the time. In the sample of 293 letters, the FBI had identified 26 potential violations but missed 22 others, the report said.
The report also details how, after obtaining sweeping new anti-terrorism powers under the Patriot Act in late 2001, the FBI did not establish basic training and record-keeping procedures to ensure that civil liberties were protected. That kept the agency from giving Congress accurate numbers on how often it used national security letters, the investigation found.
"During the time period covered by this review, the FBI had no policy or directive requiring the retention of signed copies of the national security letters or any requirement to upload national security letters to the FBI's case management system," the report said.
The findings are reminiscent of those in previous reports, including many by Fine's office, that have detailed the FBI's chronic inability to keep track of items ranging from guns to laptops to documents related to the Oklahoma City bombing case. Fine determined that the latest violations were not deliberate but that they could be widespread.
Gonzales described the problems as unacceptable and left open the possibility of criminal charges. He ordered further investigation.
"Once we get that information, we'll be in a better position to assess what kinds of steps should be taken," Gonzales said after a speech to privacy officials. "There is no excuse for the mistakes that have been made, and we are going to make things right as quickly as possible."
At the same time, Gonzales stressed that he thinks "the kinds of errors we saw here were due to questionable judgment or lack of attention, not intentional wrongdoing." Mueller said that the "the number of abuses is exceptionally small" compared with the broad use of national security letters and that "no one has been damaged" by the errors.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the government over its use of national security letters, said the report shows the need for an independent investigation of the Justice Department's antiterrorism tactics.
"It confirms our greatest suspicions about the abuse of Patriot Act powers and, specifically, national security letter powers," Romero said.
Aside from the findings about national security letters, the report details for the first time a separate kind of emergency letter used in "exigent circumstances," modeled on letters used by New York FBI agents after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The 739 emergency letters were issued as part of an agreement with three unidentified telephone companies and requested information with the promise of subpoenas, which rarely materialized, the report said.
Mueller indicated that "we stopped the use of these letters" in May 2006. An FBI official later clarified those comments, saying emergency letters are still used but now promise a national security letter rather than a subpoena sometime in the future.
Staff writers William Branigin and Ellen Nakashima and washingtonpost.com writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.