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An agent seeking emergency toll-billing information from a phone company now must write a memo explaining the emergency that makes such a request necessary. Ms. Caproni said a supervisor must approve the request.

In the past, phone companies could refuse the requests made in an “exigent letter.” But they were in a difficult position to do so because they didn’t know the circumstances of the apparent emergency.

Now, Ms. Caproni said, the letters sent to phone companies must provide more facts to help the company determine whether the emergency is serious enough to turn over the records without first receiving a subpoena.

“This, at least, creates a factual record,” Ms. Caproni said. “Assuming it passes the ‘straight-face test,’ we don’t anticipate any problems with the phone companies.”

According to a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general, more than 700 “exigent letters” were sent from 2003 to 2006.

“The numbers of true emergencies is far smaller than that,” Ms. Caproni said. “It’s a small number of true emergencies, though there are some. There are times when we have true emergencies, and we need things quickly.”

She said she is not sure how many letters have been sent under the new standards.

The upcoming IG report will be its third about the bureau’s expanded investigative power under the Patriot Act, which originally was passed in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The first two reports focused mostly on NSLs, which allow the bureau to act unilaterally in demanding financial, phone and other records. Unlike typical subpoenas or search warrants, NSLs do not need judicial approval.

The reports found widespread abuses.

“National Security Letters can be a valuable tool for the FBI to use in detecting and preventing acts of terrorism. But abuses should not be tolerated; there’s too much at stake for the FBI to get it wrong,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee, said Monday. “The FBI needs better transparency and accountability, and those who broke the rules should be held accountable.”

Ms. Caproni said the biggest problems with NSLs were similar to those regarding “exigent letters” in the Times and the Post case. She described them not as malicious, but as “procedural” or “failure of care.”

In 2007, the bureau increased training about NSLs and created a work-flow system that ensures supervisory review. Every NSL also must be reviewed by a bureau lawyer, she said.

Despite the changes, Ms. Caproni doesn’t suspect any fewer NSLs are being sent.

Mr. German thinks the bureau’s internal changes are not enough. “This requires outside oversight,” he said. “Getting the courts involved is the most important check against abuses of executive power.”