- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The FBI failed to create “sufficient controls and oversight” in its domestic hunt for terrorists, leading to “widespread and serious” misuse of its authority to gather telephone, e-mail, travel records and financial documents.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine yesterday told a House panel that FBI agents used National Security Letters (NSL) to get information without a judge’s order because of inadequate oversight of the domestic terrorist surveillance program.

Mr. Fine said his office did not find that FBI agents sought to intentionally misuse NSLs or pursued information they were not entitled to obtain, but that the agency should have established sufficient controls.

“The FBI did not do so,” he testified at the House Judiciary Committee. “The FBI’s failures, in my view, were serious and unacceptable.”

Mr. Fine said the misuses and problems his office found were the product of “mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness, lack of training, lack of adequate guidance and lack of adequate oversight.”

Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and committee chairman, called the letters “secret subpoenas issued without any court review,” saying they had been used “repeatedly to invade the privacy of law-abiding Americans.

“This was a serious breach of trust,” Mr. Conyers said, adding that the Justice Department had “converted this tool into a handy shortcut to illegally gather vast amounts of private information while at the same time significantly underreporting its activities to Congress.”

He said the Justice Department’s “total lack of internal control and cavalier attitude toward the few legal restrictions that exist in the act have possibly resulted in the illegal seizure of American citizens’ private information.”

The committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, said Mr. Fine’s office had raised concerns about the FBI’s internal recordkeeping and its guidelines for the use of National Security Letters, making it clear that the deficiencies were “the result of the poor implementation and administration of National Security Letter authority.

“In other words, the problem is enforcement of the law, not the law itself,” he said, adding that measures by the FBI to correct the deficiencies and establish oversight on a timely basis would “ensure proper use of this important law.”

Republican Reps. Dan Lungren and Darrell Issa, both of California, also warned the FBI to correct the situation before it loses its National Security Letter authority.

“From the attorney general on down, you should be ashamed of yourself,” said Mr. Issa. “We stretched to try to give you the tools necessary to make America safe, and it is very, very clear that you’ve abused that trust.”

FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni took responsibility for the problems but said they could be fixed in a matter of months. She said the bureau would have to “work to get the trust of this committee back … and we’re going to do it.”

In 1986, Congress authorized the FBI to obtain electronic records without approval from a judge using National Security Letters. In 2001, the USA Patriot Act expanded the range of records available to include those considered relevant to an ongoing terrorism or espionage investigation.

Mr. Fine said the FBI’s use of National Security Letters had increased dramatically since the enactment of the USA Patriot Act, jumping from 8,500 in 2000 to 39,000 in 2003, 56,000 in 2004 and 47,000 in 2005. But he questioned the validity of the FBI database, saying it understated the total number of NSL requests by the FBI — in some cases by as much as 17 percent for National Security Letters and 22 percent for requests.

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