- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

Senior FBI counterterrorism officials improperly issued blanket national security letters for 3,860 telephone numbers to cover up the fact that they had already improperly obtained the information, a Justice Department report said yesterday.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in the report that those who prepared the letters relied on outdated data and now-prohibited procedures, but they were approved by an assistant director, a deputy assistant director, two acting deputy assistant directors and a special agent in charge.

Mr. Fine said the letters, a form of an administrative subpoena demanding data or information on a person without probable cause or judicial oversight, included pre-USA Patriot Act language now prohibited under law. He also said none of the letters complied with internal FBI policy requiring the preparation and approval of memoranda establishing the existence of an open investigation and the relevance of the numbers and the information being sought.

Notice of the improper letters was listed without emphasis starting on page 129 of the IG’s 163-page report. None of the FBI officials who approved them was identified.

The report described the finding as “troubling,” noting that the FBI had disregarded a secret court’s constitutional objections and obtained private records for national security probes, including telephone records or credit-card data.

“We questioned the appropriateness of the FBI’s actions” in disregarding the court, the Inspector General’s office said.

Generally, the report said FBI employees had complied with requirements to provide substantive justifications for national security letters, saying 5 percent of those examined contained “perfunctory justifications.”

But it said the FBI’s use of national security letters to obtain personal information on U.S. citizens in terrorism and espionage investigations rose in 2006 after Justice Department auditors found violations of law or rules in the bureau’s use of the letters during the prior three years.

The report also identified a case in which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court twice refused to authorize a warrant based on concerns that the investigative target was protected by the First Amendment. It said the FBI got the information it sought by using a national security letter without further review.

Mr. Fine said it was “too early to determine” whether corrective measures taken since by the FBI and the Justice Department to correct the problems will be effective — since some of the measures have not been fully implemented or tested.

He said that since the release of an audit last March covering the FBI’s use through 2005 of the national security letters, auditors found a “continuing increase” both in their legitimate use and in the number of violations, including the issuance of letters without proper authorization, improper requests and the unauthorized collection of telephone or e-mail records.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that the bureau had enacted reforms to prevent similar abuses after the 2007 report.

But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and Judiciary Committee chairman, said yesterday Mr. Mueller had “soft-pedaled” the inspector general’s 2007 audit during his committee testimony, noting that the new report outlines “more abuses and what appears to be the improper use of national security letters for years in a systemic failure throughout the FBI.

“In addition to the violations of law we examined last year, this new IG report suggests that the FBI mirrors the rest of the Bush administration in seeking to avoid accountability by providing itself blanket authority,” Mr. Leahy said. “When the Senate returns after the March recess, I intend to follow up with another oversight hearing.

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