For some time now, the FBI has insisted that it is using the Patriot Act’s national security letters function with caution and discretion. National security letters were used by the agency between 2003 and 2005 to obtain the personal records of U.S. residents and visitors, and a court order is not required to issue one. Corporations and other organizations receiving national securing letters are told that part of federal compliance is that they keep the request and the reply secret.
The FBI reported that it had sent only “about 9,000” national security letters, when–in fact–it had sent between 19,000 and 50,000, depending on who you ask or how the data is interpreted. At any rate, there is no doubt that they sent many more than they claim to have sent, and the figure seems to be in the several-thousand area. More significant, a sampling of the letters, investigated by the Justice Department, indicates 22 possible breaches of internal FBI and Justice Department regulations.
Because the Patriot Act permits the gathering of personal information from persons not alleged to be spies or terrorists, the potential to abuse the national security letter function was obvious to many of us from the beginning, but both the FBI and the Bush administration insisted, over and over, that no abuses were taking place. You can call it incompetence or you can call it lying, but the bottom line is that abuses were taking place all the time.
Lanny Davis, a member of the White House Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, says that a recent briefing by the FBI left him “very concerned about what I regard to be serious potential infringements of privacy and civil liberties by the FBI and their use of national security letters. It is my impression that they too regard this as very serious.”
In the Justice Department report are many examples of FBI agents having used “exigent letters” to get fast information under the condition that they would later cover the requests with either full national security letters or grand jury subpoenas–only the national security letters and subpoenas never surfaced. There were also several instances in which agents claimed exigent circumstances when none existed.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is said to be “incensed” over the report, and FBI director Robert S. Mueller III has taken full responsibility for the errors.