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Warrantless spying lasted into '06

The FBI director says reforms to curb the use of national security letters to gather data have started working.

March 06, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The FBI indicated Wednesday that widespread irregularities in a program to gather confidential data on people in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks continued into at least 2006.

The bureau's use of national security letters to gather phone, Internet and credit records in terrorism and espionage investigations -- a power magnified by the Patriot Act -- first came under attack last March in a report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. In a study covering 2003 to 2005, Fine reported numerous instances of FBI personnel violating internal guidelines and procedures in how they obtained and used national security letters, which are a form of administrative subpoena.

The findings triggered an outcry from civil liberties groups that the FBI had invaded the privacy of law-abiding citizens and a pledge from the bureau to correct the problem.

Testifying Wednesday on Capitol Hill, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said that a second audit by the Justice Department's internal watchdog office, scheduled to be released soon, will show a continuation of problems into 2006. But Mueller said agency reforms he instituted are starting to work.

"This report will identify issues similar to those in the report issued last March," Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "This is, of course, because it covers a time period which predates the reforms we now have in place." Those measures, he said, include a new Office of Integrity and Compliance and regular audits of FBI offices.

Fine's previous audit also found that the FBI's system of tracking the volume of letters was so poor that the bureau was underreporting the number to Congress.

Mueller didn't provide details of the continuing problems. A spokeswoman for Fine, Cynthia Schnedar, declined to comment on the report.

National security letters are controversial because the FBI issues them without having to get court approval. The lack of protection led a federal judge in New York last year to strike down the practice, which he called "the legislative equivalent of breaking and entering."

The Justice Department is appealing that ruling. It has said the data gained from the requests, which are sent directly to financial institutions and phone companies without the knowledge of their customers, is crucial to building terrorism and espionage cases.

The number of national security letters issued by the FBI has mushroomed since Sept. 11. Fine found that some 140,000 were issued between 2003 and 2005. "There should be far more oversight of the FBI's use of national security letters," said Jameel Jaffer, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the legal challenge in New York. "The secrecy surrounding the FBI's use of these intrusive letters is unwarranted and invites abuse."


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