FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a Senate committee yesterday that a soon-to-be-released report by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General will show the bureau improperly used national security letters to obtain personal information on U.S. citizens during terrorism and espionage investigations.
Mr. Mueller said the letters, a form of an administrative subpoena demanding records or information on a person without probable cause or judicial oversight, were issued in 2006, a year before the FBI enacted what he described as reforms that now prevent similar abuses.
"Among the reforms we have instituted is the creation of a new Office of Integrity and Compliance within the bureau, reporting to the deputy director," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "This office will identify and mitigate in advance areas of potential risk. And we will continue our vigilance in this area.
"I can tell you we are committed to ensuring that we not only get this right, but maintain the vital trust of the American people," he said. "We recognize that we must properly balance civil liberties with public safety in our efforts, and we will continually strive to do so."
In March 2007, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine reported that the FBI had improperly or illegally obtained telephone, financial and other records in terrorism and espionage investigations, identifying 26 potential intelligence violations involving the FBI's use of national security letters.
In reviewing 77 investigative files in FBI field offices, Mr. Fine said his office found 17 containing one or more potential violations not identified by the field office or reported to FBI headquarters. In a 216-page report, he said investigators identified "many instances" in which the FBI improperly obtained telephone billing records and subscriber information from three telephone companies.
The report said the FBI's acquisition of the information "circumvented the requirements" of the national security letters statute and violated the attorney general's guidelines for FBI national security investigations, foreign-intelligence collection and internal FBI policy.
"We believe the improper or illegal uses we found involve serious misuses of national security letter authorities," Mr. Fine said.
Mr. Mueller praised the report at the time as "a fair and objective review," but said without elaboration that the reported privacy abuses "predates the reforms we now have in place."
Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said the inspector general's 2007 report showed widespread illegal and improper use of national security letters to obtain telephone and financial records.
"I look to Director Mueller to demonstrate to this committee that our oversight has been effective and that corrective actions have been taken, and I await the inspector general's follow-up reports," he said. "Everybody wants to stop terrorists. But we also, though, as Americans, we believe in our privacy rights, and we want those protected."
Michael German, national-security policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said yesterday that while new guidelines have been introduced, last year's IG report made clear that internal guidelines "are meaningless" to the FBI.
"It's becoming more and more obvious that outside oversight is essential, since the bureau's learning curve is sadly unimpressive," said Mr. German, a former FBI agent. "We're looking forward to seeing the IG's upcoming report. Hopefully, it will be the wake-up call that Congress needs."