Friday, March 09, 2007

Justice IG Finds Abuse of National Security Letters

A Justice Department investigation has found pervasive errors in the FBI's use of its power to secretly demand telephone, e-mail and financial records in national security cases, officials with access to the report said yesterday.

The inspector general's audit found 22 possible breaches of internal FBI and Justice Department regulations -- some of which were potential violations of law -- in a sampling of 293 "national security letters." The letters were used by the FBI to obtain the personal records of U.S. residents or visitors between 2003 and 2005. The FBI identified 26 potential violations in other cases. ...

The letters enable an FBI field office to compel the release of private information without the authority of a grand jury or judge. The USA Patriot Act, enacted after the 2001 attacks, eliminated the requirement that the FBI show "specific and articulable" reasons to believe that the records it demands belong to a foreign intelligence agent or terrorist.

That law, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed national security letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.

Now the bureau needs only to certify that the records are "sought for" or "relevant to" an investigation "to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." ...

(Inspector General Glenn A. Fine's) audit, which was limited to 77 case files in four FBI field offices, found that those offices did not even generate accurate counts of the national security letters they issued, omitting about one in five letters from the reports they sent to headquarters in Washington. Those inaccurate numbers, in turn, were used as the basis for required reports to Congress.

Officials said they believe that the 48 known problems may be the tip of the iceberg in an internal oversight system that one of them described as "shoddy."

The report identified several instances in which the FBI used a tool known as "exigent letters" to obtain information urgently, promising that the requests would be covered later by grand jury subpoenas or national security letters. In several of those cases, the subpoenas were never sent, the review found.

The review also found several instances in which agents claimed there were exigent circumstances when none existed. The FBI recently ended the practice of using exigent letters in national security cases, officials said last night.

The report, mandated by Congress over the Bush administration's objections, is to be presented to several House and Senate committees today.

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