Lawmakers Warn FBI Over Spy Power Abuse
Wednesday, March 21, 2007; 4:21 AM
WASHINGTON -- Republicans and Democrats alike sternly warned the FBI on Tuesday that it risks losing its broad power to collect telephone, e-mail and financial records to hunt terrorists because of rampant abuses of the authority.
The threats were the latest blow to the embattled Justice Department and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is already on the defensive and fighting to keep his job over the firings of federal prosecutors.
The warnings came as the department's chief watchdog, inspector general Glenn A. Fine, told the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI engaged in widespread and serious misuse of its authority to issue national security letters, which resulted in illegally collecting data from Americans and foreigners.
If the FBI doesn't move swiftly to correct the mistakes and problems revealed last week in Fine's 130-page report, "you probably won't have NSL authority," said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., a supporter of the power, referring to the data requests by their initials.
"I hope that this would be a lesson to the FBI that they can't get away with this and expect to maintain public support for the tools that they need to combat terrorism," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the former Judiciary chairman, who called the abuses "a gross overreach."
"Let this be a warning," Sensenbrenner said.
Fine, who called the problems he uncovered inexcusable, said he did not believe they were intentional. Most involved information that could have been legally obtained if proper procedures had been followed, he said.
"We believe the misuses and the problems we found generally were the product of mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness, lack of training, lack of adequate guidance, and lack of adequate oversight," Fine said.
Still, the FBI's failure to control and monitor how it collected the information constituted "serious and unacceptable" lapses, Fine told the committee. He was to appear Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary panel.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., called the abuses part of a disturbing pattern of misconduct at the Justice Department.
"This was a serious breach of trust," Conyers said. "The department had converted this tool into a handy shortcut to illegally gather vast amounts of private information while at the same time significantly underreporting its activities to Congress."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Congress should revise the USA Patriot Act, which substantially loosened controls over the letters.