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FBI Director Robert Mueller says that his agency lacked appropriate policies for using what he calls "an important tool."
The FBI has repeatedly broken the law with efforts to obtain private information about people in the United States, according to a sharply critical report from the Justice Department's inspector general.
But Inspector General Glenn Fine also said that his review of practices authorized by the USA Patriot Act found no "intentional misuses of the statute."
The revelations came in the first annual report to Congress on secret administrative subpoenas for wiretaps and searches related to national security, as required under the reauthorized USA Patriot Act.
The practices in question revolve around "national security letters" — documents used by the FBI to force businesses to hand over customer information. The report says the FBI's use of the letters violates the bureau's own guidelines in many different ways.
Adding to the potential for wrongdoing, companies on the receiving end of national security letters aren't allowed to tell anyone that a request for information has been made.
The new report says that tens of thousands of NSLs have been filed in the past few years — and that more than ever are being used on U.S. residents. According to Inspector General Glenn Fine, many of the violations were serious.
Fine cited "significant and widespread problems in the FBI's use of national security letters," adding: "It was not just one thing."
For example, the Justice Department audit found that the number of letters the FBI told Congress it sent was about 20 percent short of the actual total.
In other cases, the FBI sent letters demanding information immediately, citing an emergency.
But the inspector general cited 700 instances where no emergency existed, or in which the FBI failed in other ways to follow the rules for the emergency requests, called "exigent letters." Sometimes the FBI received information it wasn't allowed to have — and it kept it. Sometimes the bureau filed national security letters in cases that had no national security interest at all.
Fine said that many of the cases were "the result of sloppiness, mistakes, confusion, inadequate training, inadequate oversight," all of which he termed "unacceptable."
He said he found no "intentional misuses of the statute."
This morning, FBI Director Robert Mueller tried to quell the uproar over the report
"I am particularly concerned about findings in this report that indicate we did not have appropriate policies in place," Mueller said, "and in other areas where we did have policies, we did not adhere to them in using this important tool."
Fine, too, noted that national security letters are an important tool for the FBI to catch terrorists. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales echoed that sentiment in a speech to the International Association of Privacy Professionals in Washington.
"I believed that the FBI was acting responsibly in using national security letters," Gonzales said. "Because of the good work of I.G., I've come to learn that I was wrong. Undoubtedly, some will argue that the FBI should forfeit its authority to use this tool. Instead, I would urge patience."
Gonzales said that many new policies are being implemented, and some are already in place, to fix the problems that the inspector general identified.
Nearly everyone commended Fine's work Friday, although the Bush administration initially objected to the changes in the Patriot Act that gave the inspector general the authority to conduct an annual report.
Privacy advocates such as ACLU Director Anthony Romero said the new report confirms some of the fears they have had all along about national security letters.
"The most troubling part of NSLs is that there's no judge who signs off on that request for information," Romero said. "And what you find as a result of that is the misuse and abuse of NSL powers."
He called on Congress to undo the part of the Patriot Act that gave the FBI more freedom in this area.
Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill said they were very troubled by the report. That sentiment even came from some of those who supported giving the FBI this authority in the first place, such as Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona.
"It shakes my confidence in the organization which is given a very important power," Kyl said. "When significant and important powers are given to public officials, there's an obligation to use those powers very carefully."
Several senators said there will be hearings. At least one Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said they may have to go further, and change the law.