House Panel Threatens to Curb FBI Powers

Democrats and some Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee say they will seek to curtail the FBI's record-gathering powers if the agency doesn't fix a raft of problems outlined in a recent report by its own inspector general.

The report by the inspector general, who spoke to the panel today, said the FBI used "National Security Letters" to obtain personal information improperly and illegally. NSLs are letters the government sends to phone companies and others to secretly obtain phone, e-mail and financial records in what it deems to be national security cases.

Inspector General Glenn Fine says that his deep investigation of how the FBI has been using the National Security Letters found "mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness, lack of adequate training, guidance, [and] oversight."

But, Fine added, he doesn't believe most FBI investigators were purposefully breaking the law. Even so, the errors were often not only illegal, but also against the FBI's own internal policies.

Agents are only supposed to use National Security letters when there is an open case that has to do with terrorism or espionage. Fine found that since the Patriot Act, the letters went from being used about 8,500 times in one year to 56,000 times in 2004.

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