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FBI director acknowledges more surveillance abuses

Senate told to expect more revelations of past phone and e-mail surveillance abuses stemming from Patriot Act authority beyond what has already been made public.

WASHINGTON--The FBI's abuse of secret requests for telephone and e-mail logs was not limited to a three-year period described in an earlier report, the bureau's director acknowledged to a Senate committee on Wednesday.

Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller FBI

Last spring, the U.S. Department of Justice's inspector general released a report that the FBI overstepped its authority and may have broken the law from 2003 to 2005 in its use of that covert investigative tool known as a national security letter--an admission that drew rebuke from congressional Democrats and Republicans alike. The Patriot Act dramatically expanded the FBI's authority to issue national security letters.

Now the inspector general has identified "similar" problems that also persisted in 2006, with details to be disclosed in a forthcoming report, FBI Director Robert Mueller told a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday. He attempted to downplay those findings by assuring the Senate Judiciary Committee that the activity predates "reforms" the agency has since put into place.

"We have instituted new procedures and internal oversight mechanisms to ensure we as an organization minimize the chance of future lapses," he said at a wide-ranging morning hearing on FBI oversight.

The FBI has created a new Office of Integrity and Compliance tasked with identifying and mitigating "areas of potential risk," and the bureau "will continue our vigilance in this area," Mueller added. Last year, he told a House committee that agents had also been "retrained" in how to use the letters and emphasized that none of the missteps was found to be "intentional."

The 2001 Patriot Act gave the FBI expanded ability to use the tactic to obtain confidential information on Americans from banks, credit card companies, credit bureaus, telephone companies, and Internet service providers. National security letters do not require court approval and rely on the investigator's certification that the request is "relevant" to a probe. Recipients are generally not allowed to disclose the document's existence, except to an attorney or others approved by the FBI.

News of the forthcoming report drew surprisingly little attention from the senators present at Wednesday's hearing. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) accused the FBI of stonewalling the committee's requests for internal documents related to its reportedly inappropriate requests for phone records. "Here we are a year later, and the FBI has only produced 15 heavily redacted pages," he said.

But Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's chairman, merely said in his opening statement that he found last year's report "troubling" and looked forward to hearing how the abuses were being "corrected."