Audit Finds Improper Use of Patriot Act
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
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I'm Alex Chadwick.
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BRAND: First, the FBI has abused its power in using special subpoenas to get people's private information. That today, from the Justice Department's inspector general. The subpoenas, called national security letters, are supposed to be used to get telephone, e-mail and financial records in national security cases.
NPR's Ari Shapiro is here now to explain this report and what's in it. And, Ari, remind us, in what situations is the FBI supposed to use these national security letters?
ARI SHAPIRO: Well, it used to be that they could only use them to get information about foreign intelligence agents or terrorists. But under the Patriot Act and the subsequent reauthorization, the FBI can now use it to gather information in a wider range of circumstances. Basically, as long as the information they're seeking is relevant to an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities - is the phrase they use.
So, essentially, you know, if I'm a phone company, or an Internet company, or a library, and I get a national security letter from the FBI, I have to hand over the information, the personal records, that the FBI is asking for. And I'm not allowed to tell anybody about it.
According to this report, there have been many, many more of them in the last few years. It's increased exponentially. And they're being used much more frequently against Americans than they ever were before.
BRAND: And are they used in other cases that aren't related to terrorism?
SHAPIRO: Well, that's part of the findings of improper behavior that the Justice Department inspector general cited in this report. The money, quote, from this report is this, they said, "we believe the improper or illegal uses we found involved serious misuses of national security letter authority."
And here is just a couple of them as used as they identified. They said, when the FBI reports its use of national security letters to Congress, it's under-reporting its use of these things by about 20 percent. It's said that they're getting more information than they're allowed to under the law in these letters. They're getting information that is not related to national security investigations. And they're also using these things called exigent letters, which basically say, we urgently demand this information right now and we will follow up with the national security letter or a grand jury subpoena, or something like that.
And the inspector general found that in some cases, they're just not following up with those things.
BRAND: And did the inspector general find whether or not these were intentional or just mistakes?
SHAPIRO: They didn't find that they were intentional. It seems like, in most cases, they are mistakes either by FBI agents in the field or by third parties handing over the information. It doesn't look like there's any criminal wrongdoing here. In terms of civil lawsuits, though, I recently spoke with the executive director for the ACLU, Anthony Romero, and he said they see a lot of material in here for lawsuits that could allege that people's privacy has been illegally violated.
BRAND: Okay. And what's been the response today from the Justice Department?
SHAPIRO: Well, FBI Director Robert Mueller held a press conference just a little while ago. Here's part of what he had to say.
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Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (Director, FBI): I am the person responsible. I am the person accountable. And I am committed to ensuring that we correct these deficiencies and live up to these responsibilities.
SHAPIRO: And that basically characterizes the reaction from the Justice Department as a whole. They're expressing contrition. They're saying these are serious problems. Some of them, they're saying steps have already been taken to fix the problems, other steps will be taken.
Although, actually, the Justice Department initially, and the White House, didn't want the inspector general to have the authority to conduct this annual investigation. So the ACLU called that hypocritical, that now the Justice Department is commending this investigation, that they didn't want to have happened in the first place.
BRAND: Well, Ari, this has been a rough week for the Justice Department. Four of the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired late last year testified, this week, about feeling political pressure before their dismissal. So what's the latest there? And you have a few seconds.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, it has been - it's been a very rough week for Attorney General Gonzales. He said yesterday - he changed course and said he would allow top justice officials to testify on Capitol Hill about this issue without subpoenas. And he's also going to - he won't oppose the change in the law that some members of Congress wanted to make, to take away some attorney general authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys.
BRAND: Okay, well, thank you very much, Ari. NPR's Ari Shapiro.
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