WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's inspector general reported today that the FBI continued to improperly obtain personal information about Americans for terrorism investigations during 2006, citing 34 instances. He reserved judgment on whether corrective actions under way would work.
"It is too early to tell whether these measures will eliminate fully the problems," Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in his second report in two years on the use of national-security letters to obtain personal information. Fine said the FBI and Justice Department had made significant progress in implementing revised procedures since last year but some measures still were not fully in use or tested.
The new procedures govern how FBI agents use national-security letters, which allow them to obtain telephone, bank, Internet and credit records without first getting a warrant from a judge. These revised procedures were announced after Fine's report last year found 48 violations of law or rules in the bureau's use of national security letters from 2003 to 2005.
Fine said that the number of abuses found and reported by the FBI itself in 2006 "was significantly higher than the number of reported violations in prior years." He said the improved self-policing "may be explained in large part" by attention focused on these issues by his earlier audit, which was being conducted during 2006.
In 2006, FBI personnel self-reported 84 possible violations to headquarters. Of these, the FBI concluded that 34 needed be reported to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, which polices intelligence-gathering abuses, Fine said.
The errors included issuing national-security letters without proper authorization, improper requests and unauthorized collection of telephone or e-mail records.
Fine determined that 20 of these violations resulted from mistakes by the FBI and 14 resulted initially from errors by the companies that received the letters. But Fine added that "the FBI may have compounded these errors" by recipients because agents did not recognize that the companies turned over too much information and went ahead and used or loaded into bureau computers the inappropriately obtained information.
Fine also reported that in one case FBI anti-terrorism agents circumvented a federal court that twice had refused a warrant for personal records because the judges believed the agents were investigating conduct protected by the First Amendment.
Fine said the agents got the records using national-security letters without altering or re-examining the basis of their suspicions the target's association with others under investigation.
Fine highlighted another episode involving the First Amendment's freedom to associate with people of one's choice.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret, twice denied the FBI's request for a warrant under section 215 of the Patriot Act for business records about a target "based on concerns that the investigation was premised on protected First Amendment activity," Fine said. So without altering the basis of its investigation, the bureau got the same records without a warrant using national-security letters.
FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni told Fine "she disagreed with the court" and the NSLs were appropriate. "She stated the FBI would have to close numerous investigations if it was not permitted to investigate individuals based on their contact with other subjects of FBI investigations," Fine said.