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Gonzales Was Told of FBI Violations

At least two other reports of NSL-related violations were sent to Gonzales, according to the new documents. In letters copied to him on Dec. 11, 2006, and Feb. 26, 2007, the FBI reported to the oversight board that agents had requested and obtained phone data on the wrong people.

Nonetheless, Gonzales reacted with surprise when the Justice Department inspector general reported this March that there were pervasive problems with the FBI's handling of NSLs and another investigative tool known as an exigent circumstances letter.

"I was upset when I learned this, as was Director Mueller. To say that I am concerned about what has been revealed in this report would be an enormous understatement," Gonzales said in a speech March 9, referring to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller. The attorney general added that he believed back in 2005, before the Patriot Act was renewed, that there were no problems with NSLs. "I've come to learn that I was wrong," he said, making no mention of the FBI reports sent to him.

Marcia Hofmann, a lawyer for the nonpartisan Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, "I think these documents raise some very serious questions about how much the attorney general knew about the FBI's misuse of surveillance powers and when he knew it." A lawsuit by Hofmann's group seeking internal FBI documents about NSLs prompted the release of the reports.

Caroline Fredrickson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new documents raise questions about whether Gonzales misled Congress at a moment when lawmakers were poised to renew the Patriot Act and keenly sought assurances that there were no abuses. "It was extremely important," she said of Gonzales's 2005 testimony. "The attorney general said there are no problems with the Patriot Act, and there was no counterevidence at the time."

Some of the reports describe rules violations that the FBI decided not to report to the intelligence board. In February 2006, for example, FBI officials wrote that agents sent a person's phone records, which they had obtained from a provider under a national security letter, to an outside party. The mistake was blamed on "an error in the mail handling." When the third party sent the material back, the bureau decided not to report the mistake as a violation.

The memos also detail instances in which the FBI wrote out new NSLs to cover evidence that had been mistakenly collected. In a June 30, 2006, e-mail, for instance, an FBI supervisor asked an agent who had "overcollected" evidence under a national security letter to forward his original request to lawyers. "We would like to check the specific language to see if there is anything in the body that would cover the extra material they gave," the supervisor wrote.

Sometimes the FBI reached seemingly contradictory conclusions about the gravity of its errors. On May 6, 2005, the bureau decided that it needed to report a violation when agents made an "inadvertent" request for data for the wrong phone number. But on June 1, 2006, in a similar wrong-number case, the bureau concluded that a violation did not need to be reported because the agent acted "in good faith."


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