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At the FBI headquarters yesterday, Director Robert Mueller met with representatives from civil liberties groups. He talked to them about new rules governing some controversial subpoenas known as national security letters, or NSLs. While the group said they appreciated the meeting, it didn't change their minds about the need to end the special investigative privileges.
NPR's FBI correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, reports.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: It is sure to say that people in the civil liberties community have always disliked NSLs, which give the FBI permission to get phone, e-mail and financial record without a court order.
Ms. CAROLINE FREDERICKSON (Director, Washington Legislative Office, American Civil Liberties Union): The fundamental issue here is that the FBI was given a power that it cannot control. It's not policing itself, and it can't be expected to police itself.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Caroline Frederickson with the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has stood against NSLs since they were codified in the Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks. Privacy advocates worst fears about the special subpoenas were realized earlier this year when the Justice Department inspector general and even the FBI's own internal audits found widespread misuse of them. Frederickson says the new rules just sent to the field offices won't stop the abuse.
Ms. FREDERICKSON: You know, basically when it comes down to the most fundamental piece of this is, what is the problem? We're on a completely different page.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Mueller is seeking to fix the problem with NSLs by beefing up checks and balances. In the meeting, he promised that agents would be better trained on the use of the letters, a compliant system will ensure that they are use properly and the FBI will set up an anonymous hotline so abuses can be reported. But it isn't enough, said the ACLU's Frederickson.
Ms. FREDERICKSON: They're trying to take a major wound, which is the abuse of the authorities they were granted in the Patriot Act, and try and patch it with a band-aid. And the band-aid of, you know, better compliance procedures internally and better training for the agents - those are important things, but we need a tourniquet here, we don't need a band-aid.
TEMPLE-RASTON: John Miller is the assistant director at the FBI. He says no one expected the meeting to end with either side having a change of heart.
Mr. JOHN MILLER (Assistant Director of Public Affairs, Federal Bureau of Investigation): I think the important thing about the meetings is that we've got the key people from the civil liberties and privacy advocacy groups in the nation really sitting down together with the director, with the general council, to hash these issues through. You can get very good advice from different quarters, including from people who are perceived to be your worst critics on some days.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The deputy director at the Center for National Security Studies, Lisa Graves, agreed.
Ms. LISA GRAVES (Deputy Director, Center for National Security Studies): The fact that these meetings are occurring, even though it's a bit late in this administration, is a very welcome sign, and not just symbolic but I think is a good faith effort.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI's good faith is not entirely selfless. Mueller wants to blunt the privacy groups' efforts to strip the FBI of its special subpoena powers. By all indications, even after their meeting with the director, it is something they are still determined to do.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.
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