House questions 'overreaching' FBI spy powers

Democrats, Republicans alike respond to report detailing the mishandling of requests for phone, Net and financial records.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
WASHINGTON--Widespread abuse of the FBI's authority to secretly obtain Americans' telephone, Internet and financial records drew pointed questioning on Tuesday from a key U.S. House of Representatives panel.

As promised by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), the panel chided U.S. Department of Justice Glenn Fine and FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni about an internal audit released earlier this month that detailed the FBI's missteps and illegal use of an investigative tool known as national security letters.

"The department has converted this tool into a handy shortcut to illegally gather vast amounts of private information," Conyers said, "while at the same time significantly under-reporting its activities to Congress."

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), one of the chief architects of the 2001 Patriot Act and its subsequent renewal, was among the most outspoken Republican critics at Tuesday's hearing here.

"I just make the observation that one of the things that gets people in this town in big trouble is overreaching," he said. "I think given your report, Mr. Fine, the FBI has had a gross overreach."

The FBI won expanded national security letter powers, which the Bush administration claims aid in terrorism investigations, under the 2001 Patriot Act. The tactic, which does not require court approval, allows investigators to obtain confidential information on Americans from banks, credit card companies, credit bureaus, telephone companies and Internet service providers.

In 2000, the FBI sent about 8,500 such requests. Between 2003 and 2005, that number grew to a total of 143,074 requests--and may be understated because of problems with an FBI database designed to track such requests, agency officials said.

Those numbers elicited alarm from several politicians on the committee. "Do we have that many potential terrorists running around the country?" Sensenbrenner asked. "If so, I'm really worried."

Fine readily acknowledged before the committee Tuesday that his office's review (PDF) "found widespread and serious misuse of the FBI's national security letter authorities," in many cases violating federal law, guidelines set by the attorney general, and internal FBI procedures.

Most troubling to the FBI were more than 700 so-called "exigent letters" that allowed FBI agents to unlawfully obtain customer records directly from telephone companies without going through the appropriate channels, Fine said.

"We believe the misuses and the problems we found were products of mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness, lack of training, lack of adequate guidance and lack of adequate oversight," Fine said, adding that none of those observations excused what he deemed "serious and unacceptable" failures on the FBI's part.

That description drew a blistering critique from some politicians, including Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who likened it to "a report about a first- or second-grade class," not FBI personnel with college degrees.

Lungren went on to say that Congress may revoke the FBI's national security letter authority if it doesn't clean up its act.

A number of Democrats challenged Fine's assertion that FBI agents were unaware they were breaking the law. Some pointed to recent news reports that FBI lawyers had concerns about the department's use of the letters as early as 2004 and warned agents in 2005.

"I don't believe they intended to go out and obtain information they knew they could not obtain and said we're going to do it anyway," Fine said. The officials said they are currently undertaking a more detailed evaluation designed to determine more about the motivations of the agents involved.

FBI General Counsel Caproni assured the committee that the agency is implementing a "vigorous, multidisciplinary compliance program" aimed at bolstering the public's confidence in FBI processes. The agency "is acutely aware that the only way we can keep our country safe is if we are trusted by all segments of the American public," she added.

Some Republican committee members took a gentler tack, tempering their disappointment in the report's findings with applause for the Bush administration's promised changes to FBI procedures.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee co-chairman, said it was important to note that the inspector general found "no evidence that anyone at the FBI intended to violate the law or internal policy."

Because the use of national security letters under the Patriot Act is relatively new, "certainly we will have to work out the kinks," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), adding that "while the FBI's practices have had their shortcomings, it appears these are problems that can be easily resolved, and that is good news."

The inspector general is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning for additional questioning about the report's findings.