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Now, in Washington this week, lawmakers granted immunity to a former Justice Department official. They want Monica Goodling to testify about the firing of U.S. attorneys. The White House may resist. This is not the only controversy involving the Justice Department. The FBI is rewriting the rules that govern controversial subpoenas, subpoenas called National Security Letters or NSLs.
Last week, the FBI did something unusual. It invited civil liberties groups to FBI headquarters to work on a draft of new guidelines for these letters.
Nobody expected to leave the room satisfied and happy, but just the fact the two sides sat down together marks a big change, as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The scandal over NSLs had the civil liberties community saying we told you so. They've always disliked the national security letters because they give the FBI permission to get phone, e-mail and financial records without a court order. They seem like an end-run around the normal subpoena process. So when the Justice Department's inspector general said last month that the FBI had indeed misused the special subpoenas, it was merely the confirmation of the privacy group's worst fears.
That's why the FBI general counsel, Valerie Caproni, invited the ACLU, the National Center for Security Studies, and other civil liberties groups in for a chat.
Ms. VALERIE CAPRONI (General Counsel, FBI): It was extremely helpful to actually talk to them directly as opposed to talking to each other through press releases, because we did see some level of common ground. We didn't kid ourselves. I never thought that I would come out of the meeting with them saying, oh, okay, now we understand and now we fully support the notion of the bureau having national security letters.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Last week's meeting began with Caproni handing out a 15-page, double-spaced document that was a road map for addressing the abuses cited in the IG's report. It was also an attempt to show the agency wanted to prevent any further transgressions. The group got half an hour to read the draft language and then spent the next 90 minutes going through their concerns about the new rules.
And that, in itself, was a departure, according to Lisa Graves of the National Center for Security Studies.
Ms. LISA GRAVES (Center for National Security Studies): Prior to this, we had not really had a dialogue. It was a one-way conversation from the administration, saying don't worry, trust us.
TEMPLE-RASTON: While the new guidelines have yet to be published, to hear the FBI's Caproni tell it, the bureau accepted nearly all of the suggestions laid out that afternoon. She said the changes include more precise definitions and clarifications that limit the kind of information the FBI can get from private companies.
Consider financial institutions. Under the FBI definition, a financial institution is anything that transfers money. So that means the FBI could ask casinos or even insurance companies for information under the NSL guidelines. Privacy advocates complained that would mean the FBI could get medical records from an insurance company.
In response to the privacy groups' suggestion, the FBI intends to close that loophole. Why is the FBI making nice? Graves said the bureau is concerned that they're going to lose their NSL powers. That's why they reached out to the civil liberties community. This effort, she said, won't be enough.
Ms. GRAVES: At the end of the day, however, the concern is that whatever changes are made internally aren't sufficient check because they're not independent checks. And history has proven that only independent checks can really protect America's liberty and privacy.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The ACLU's Mike German, who also sat in on the meeting, was skeptical about the whole process.
Mr. MIKE GERMAN (American Civil Liberties Union): It's not as if there weren't rules of the road before. The law was very clear about how it could be used and when it could be used. And they just simply didn't follow the law, so there's nothing to show that they will follow new guidelines any more than they follow the old guidelines.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And there are lots of other issues privacy groups still want to address, including how long the FBI hangs on to documents that aren't part of an investigation. All that aside, the FBI says it hopes last week's meeting is the beginning of a process. I asked the FBI's Caproni if this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Ms. CAPRONI: I don't know if I'd go that far, but we certainly want to hear what they have to say.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And even that is new. Both sides in the NSL debate seem to agree that it was helpful to sit and talk face to face. And the FBI is showing its new-improved draft of the NSL rules to Congress this week.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.
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