Friday, March 09, 2007

FBI violated Patriot Act

An internal audit has found that the FBI routinely violated Patriot Act rules for obtaining information without a warrant, and vastly underreported how often they sought such exceptions.

Man, couldn't have seen that one coming. No siree.

The discussion involves "National Security Letters" (NSL), the authorization of which was substantially broadened by the Patriot Act. Agents can use the letters to get information from companies without a warrant when time is a factor.

Roughly a quarter of the investigations audited by the Justice Department violated the Patriot Act rules. While noting that most of the violations appeared to be bureaucratic in nature rather than criminal, the details are not encouraging:

The FBI identified 26 possible violations in its use of the national security letters, including failing to get proper authorization, making improper requests under the law and unauthorized collection of telephone or Internet e-mail records....

But that's not all. Sometimes they couldn't even be bothered with an NSL.

The FBI also used so-called "exigent letters," signed by officials at FBI headquarters who were not authorized to sign national security letters, to obtain information. In at least 700 cases, these exigent letters were sent to three telephone companies to get toll billing records and subscriber information.

"In many cases, there was no pending investigation associated with the request at the time the exigent letters were sent," the audit concluded.

The letters inaccurately said the FBI had requested subpoenas for the information requested — "when, in fact, it had not," the audit found.

Having abused the letters, the FBI grossly undercounted the true scope of their use. They issued a total of 95,000 NSLs in 2003 and 2004, but told Congress they had issued only 9,254.

It's important to note that the report says that the abuses and undercounts appear to stem from bureaucratic problems and poor recordkeeping, and said it had not uncovered evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

But that's hardly the point. The reason we've traditionally required warrants is to protect citizens from an abusive government. By allowing widespread warrantless searches, we strip away that protection and end up relying on our government's good intentions to protect us.

Which is just foolish. Human organizations cannot usually be relied upon to govern themselves; the conflicts of interest are too powerful. We gave the FBI substantial new powers, with limited requirements for independent approval or review; We should not be surprised to discover that the power was abused.

This case provides yet another reason to be thankful that the White House and Congress are controlled by different parties; we can actually expect action on this and other abuses. Further, it's yet another part of the evolving conversation over how to balance security and civil liberties in an age of terrorism. After 9/11, the pendulum swung so far toward the security side that it threatened to topple the entire apparatus. Now, thank God, it is swinging back, as a new generation learns the perils of a government saying "Just trust me!" to its citizens.

Update: Alberto Gonzales and FBI director Robert Mueller admitted the FBI violated the law, and left open the possibility of criminal prosecution. Most significantly, the FBI will no longer use "exigent" letters.

All very nice, but this isn't something that can be solved through administrative means in the executive branch. As long as Congress is revising the Patriot Act to deal with the problem of interim prosecutors, I think they should revisit some other sections as well.

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