Audit finds more FBI privacy abuses

March 13, 2008 9:43:03 AM PDT
The Justice Department's inspector general reported Thursday that the FBI continued to improperly obtain personal information about Americans for terrorism investigations during 2006. He reserved judgment on whether corrective actions under way will work. "It is too early to tell whether these measures will eliminate fully the problems," Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in his second report in two years on the use of national security letters to obtain personal information. Fine said the FBI and Justice Department had made significant progress in implementing revised procedures since last year but some measures still are not fully in use or tested.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers acknowledged that "the FBI has taken important steps to repair" the problems but said, "I remain disappointed."

Conyers, D-Mich., said his committee would question FBI Director Robert Mueller about the inspector general's report at a hearing next month.

The new procedures govern how FBI agents use national security letters, which allow them to obtain telephone, bank, Internet and credit records without first getting a warrant from a judge. These revised procedures were announced after Fine's report last year found 48 violations of law or rules in the bureau's use of national security letters from 2003 to 2005.

Fine said that the number of abuses found and reported by the FBI itself in 2006 "was significantly higher than the number of reported violations in prior years." He said the improved self-policing "may be explained in large part" by attention focused on these issues by his earlier audit, which was being conducted during 2006.

In written statements, both the FBI and the Justice Department noted that the 2006 abuses occurred before Fine's first report brought problems to light last year.

In 2006, FBI personnel self-reported 84 possible violations to headquarters. Of these, the FBI concluded that 34 needed be reported to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, which polices intelligence-gathering abuses, Fine said.

The errors included issuing national security letters without proper authorization, improper requests and unauthorized collection of telephone or Internet e-mail records.

Fine determined that 20 of these violations resulted from mistakes by the FBI and 14 resulted initially from errors by the companies that received the letters. But Fine added that "the FBI may have compounded these errors" by recipients because agents did not recognize that the companies turned over too much information and went ahead and used or loaded into bureau computers the inappropriately obtained information.

The FBI's use of national security letters rose by 4.7 percent in 2006, to 49,425 letters from 47,221 letters in 2005, Fine said. Since 2003, U.S. citizens and foreigners legally in this country have increasingly been the targets of the letters, rising from 39 percent of requests in 2003 to 60 percent in 2006, Fine reported.

Fine issued 17 new recommendations to help improve the FBI's use and policing of the letters, including additional guidance and training for agents and regular monitoring of the handling of the letters. He said the FBI agreed to all of them.

Fine commended the FBI for devoting "significant time, energy and resources to ensuring that its employees understand the seriousness of the FBI's shortcomings." He emphasized that "continual attention, vigilance and reinforcement by the FBI and the department" will be required.

Fine criticized one of the Justice Department's reform efforts. He said an August 2007 proposal by a working group under Justice's chief privacy officer "did not adequately address measures to label or tag NSL-derived information or to minimize the retention and dissemination of such information."

The FBI and Justice Department said they were pleased that Fine reported significant progress and commitment on their part to resolving the problem and that they had gone beyond his initial recommendations.

Assistant FBI Director John Miller said new rules require that an attorney review the letters before they are sent, a new automated system was put in place to reduce errors and improve the accuracy of reports to Congress, and agents are getting more training about national security letters.

"We are committed to using them in ways that maximize their national security value while providing the highest level of privacy and protection of the civil liberties of those we are sworn to protect," Miller said.

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On the Net:

Justice Department IG: http://www.usdoj.gov/oig

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