The FBI engaged in widespread and serious misuse of its authority in illegally gathering telephone, e-mail and financial records of Americans and foreigners while hunting terrorists, the Justice Department's chief inspector said Tuesday.
The FBI's failure to establish sufficient controls or oversight for collecting the information through so-called national security letters constituted "serious and unacceptable" failures, said Glenn A. Fine, the internal watchdog who revealed the data-gathering abuses in a 130-page report last week.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Fine said he did not believe the problems were intentional, but were generally the result of confusion and carelessness.
"It really was unacceptable and inexcusable what happened here," Fine said under questioning.
Democrats said that Fine's findings were an example of how the Justice Department has used broad counterterrorism authorities Congress granted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to trample on privacy rights.
"This was a serious breach of trust," said Rep. John Conyers (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich., the Judiciary chairman. "The 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."
Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the committee's former Republican chairman, said: "I hope that this would be a lesson to the FBI that they can't get away with this and expect to maintain public support," said "Let this be a warning."
Other Republicans, however, said the FBI's expanded spying powers were vital to tracking terrorists.
"The problem is enforcement of the law, not the law itself," said Rep. Lamar Smith (news, bio, voting record) of Texas, the committee's senior GOP member. "We need to be vigilant to make sure these problems are fixed."
Valerie Caproni, the FBI's general counsel, took responsibility for the abuses detailed in Fine's report.
"We're going to have to work to get the trust of this committee back, and we know that's what we have to do, and we're going to do it," she said.
In a review of headquarters files and a sampling of just four of the FBI's 56 field offices, Fine found 48 violations of law or presidential directives during 2003-2005 and estimated that "a significant number of ... violations throughout the FBI have not been identified or reported."
The bureau has launched an audit of all 56 field offices to determine the full extent of the problem. The Senate Judiciary Committee is to hear Wednesday from Fine and FBI Director Robert Mueller on the same topic.
A key concern in Congress is whether the USA Patriot Act, which substantially loosened controls over the letters, should be revised.
"Many of us have been saying that the potential for abuse of the Patriot Act's national security letter authority is almost without limit," Conyers 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 citizen's private information.,"
In 1986, Congress first authorized FBI agents to obtain electronic records without approval from a judge using national security letters. The letters can be used to acquire e-mails, telephone, travel records and financial information, like credit and bank transactions. They can be sent to telephone and Internet access companies, universities, public interest organizations, nearly all libraries, financial and credit companies.
In 2001, the Patriot Act eliminated any requirement that the records belong to someone under suspicion. Now an innocent person's records can be obtained if FBI field agents consider them merely relevant to an ongoing terrorism or spying investigation.
Fine's review, authorized by Congress over Bush administration objections, concluded the number of national security letters requested by the FBI skyrocketed after the Patriot Act became law. Each letter may contain several requests.
In 2000, the FBI issued an estimated 8,500 requests. That number peaked in 2004 with 56,000. Overall, the FBI reported issuing 143,074 requests in national security letters between 2003 and 2005. In 2005, 53 percent were for records of U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
In a sampling of 77 case files in four FBI field offices, Fine discovered an additional 8,850 requests that were never recorded in the FBI's database, and he estimated there were many more nationwide.
The 48 possible violations Fine uncovered included failing to get proper authorization, making improper requests under the law and unauthorized collection of telephone or Internet e-mail records.
Fine said the violations were unintentional, but that conclusion has been disputed by critics of the Patriot Act.
"What the inspector general documented shows a pattern of intentional misconduct that goes far beyond mismanagement," said Mike German, a former FBI agent who is a national security counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union. More than 700 "exigent circumstances" letters "said the FBI had already asked for grand jury subpoenas although the agents knew they hadn't."