Lawmakers expressed concern yesterday that the FBI was aggressively pushing the powers of the anti-terrorist USA Patriot Act to retrieve private phone and financial records of ordinary people.
"It appears to me that this is, if not abused, being close to abused," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who is a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed, saying the government's expanded power highlights the risks of balancing national security against individual rights. "It does point up how dangerous this can be," said Hagel, who appeared with Biden on ABC's "This Week."
Under the Patriot Act, the FBI issues more than 30,000 national security letters allowing the investigations each year, a hundred-fold increase over historic norms, The Washington Post reported yesterday, quoting unnamed government sources.
The security letters, which were first used in the 1970s, allow access to people's phone and e-mail records, financial data and the Internet sites they visit. The 2001 Patriot Act removed the requirement that the records sought be those of someone under suspicion.
As a result, FBI agents can review the digital records of a citizen as long as the bureau can certify that the person's records are "relevant" to a terrorism investigation.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday that he could not immediately confirm or dispute the 30,000 figure, but he said the power to use the security letters was justified and that in August the department's inspector general found no civil rights violations.
Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), both members of the Judiciary Committee, said the expanded use of security letters was a "clear concern" and that information gathered on citizens should be destroyed if it does not lead to a criminal charge.
Coburn said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he "certainly will" take steps to ensure that the documents are destroyed immediately.