WASHINGTON — Angry lawmakers on Friday threatened to amend the USA Patriot Act and limit the FBI's powers in the wake of a disclosure that agents had improperly obtained confidential records of people in the United States.
A scathing report issued Friday by the inspector general of the Justice Department found widespread problems in how the FBI has used a form of administrative subpoena -- known as a national security letter -- to gather phone, bank and credit information on thousands of citizens without court oversight.
The problems included the issuing of letters that circumvented Justice Department rules and regulations; in addition, the report found a record-keeping system in such disarray that annual reports to Congress substantially understated the number of subpoenas the FBI was issuing.
The inspector general also disclosed that the bureau had an unusual contract with three phone companies to provide call records and subscriber information without legal process.
The revelation was a major embarrassment for the FBI, which had vowed to use its investigative powers carefully when Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act last year.
National security letters do not require the approval of a judge, and have long been popular with law enforcement. The 2001 Patriot Act made them even easier to get in terrorism and espionage cases. The act also for the first time permitted FBI agents in the field to issue the letters; that authority had previously been reserved for officials at FBI headquarters.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Friday took responsibility for failing to establish an adequate monitoring system for the anti-terrorism measure. "How could this happen, who is accountable? And the answer to that is I am to be held accountable," Mueller said in a briefing with reporters. He cited problems with training and oversight of personnel, as well as the bureau audit system, and announced a number of steps to overhaul the process.
Mueller's boss, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, pointedly criticized the FBI and its director for falling down on the job.
"During the discussion of the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, I believed that the FBI was acting responsibly in using national security letters," Gonzales told a conference of privacy experts Friday. "Because of the good work of the IG, I've come to learn that I was wrong."
Gonzales said the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility had opened an investigation into possible misconduct by lawyers at the FBI who failed to monitor the subpoenas.
"Once we get that information, we'll be in a better position to assess what kinds of steps should be taken," Gonzales said after his speech. "There is no excuse for the mistakes that have been made, and we are going to make things right as quickly as possible."
Two influential senators Friday expressed anger at the inspector general's disclosures and said they were considering tightening the Patriot Act regulations that allow the FBI to use the national security letters with such wide latitude.
Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) also said they would call Mueller and Gonzales to testify in the coming weeks to get more answers and determine how widespread the problem is. Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Justice Department and the FBI, and Specter is its ranking Republican and former chairman.
"The inspector general's report shows a massive misuse by the FBI of the national security letters for law enforcement," Specter said. "There'll be oversight hearings. And I think we may have to go further than that and change the law, to revise the Patriot Act ... and perhaps take away some of the authority which we've already given to the FBI, since they appear not to be able to know how to use it."
The report by Inspector Gen. Glenn A. Fine presented a picture of mismanagement and self-regulation gone awry. Fine said he had no evidence of intentional wrongdoing, but found numerous examples of FBI personnel violating internal guidelines and procedures, as well as a failure to establish clear policies.
The report found that the FBI had greatly underreported the number of problems with national security letters to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board. And it indicated that the violations the FBI did report were less serious than ones that Fine and his investigators uncovered independently.
The FBI reported just 26 possible violations to the White House oversight board between 2003 and 2005, most of which were minor, such as "typographical errors," the report found.
But the watchdog report indicated that hundreds, or even thousands, of potentially more serious violations went unreported. Fine said a review of 77 FBI case files in four field offices found that 17 of the files, or 22%, contained violations that had not been identified by the field office or reported to FBI headquarters as required. Among the violations of policies and procedures: