By CODY LYON
Things are heating up at the Department of Justice. First, eight US District Attorneys, once proudly paraded as patriotic bells of goodness, were mysteriously ousted, and now the agency once run by a man named Hoover has admited that it engaged in improprieties that will probably send countless shivers down the spines of Americans who value privacy.
Some might think they’re hearing a collective “told you so” being articulated across the country as those who warned the Patriot Act, would chip away at safety nets of oversight and regulation at the FBI and Department Justice, believe there predictions are playing out. In fact, clear examples, evidence that some of those fears have come to fruition are illustrated in a new report from DOJ Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.
In his report, the Inspector General found the FBI misused Patriot Act powers to obtain information about US citizens and residents through “National Security Letters” or NSLs.
NSL’S are administrative subpoenas that allow the FBI to obtain content of transactions, like bank records, phone records or Internet providers.
They are controversial for a number of reasons, more notably, unlike a warrant or subpoena, no approval is necessary from a judge. In fact, an NSL only needs approval from the agent in charge at a local FBI office. Recipients of the letters are instructed to ‘keep quiet’ or risk the wrath of the law.
According to the ACLU, since the USA Patriot Act was authorized in 2001, the FBI has seen a one hundred fold increase to over 30,000 NSL’s each year.
That compares to just 8,500 NSLS in 2000.
The Inspector General report found the FBI underreported its use of NSL’s to Congress by 20%.
Worries of abuse by FBI agents sans judicial oversight had been one of the biggest fears expressed by civil libertarians opposing the patriot act. Warnings of warrant-less wiretapping, data mining and the misuse of electronic surveillance of citizens across the country ripped at the country’s soul as fears of terrorism competed with fears of big brother.
In prepared remarks to the International Association of Privacy Professionals Privacy Summit posted on the DOJ website, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales noted that Inspector General Fine had acknowledged that NSL’s are a valuable tool in the fight against terror.
But he also acknowledged the FBI did not have “sufficient controls” and that “insufficient guidance and training” was partly to blame, as well as “some confusion in the field about the rules” regarding the misuses spelled out in the report.
Current FBI head, Robert Mueller, called the current lapses “procedural errors” and not malicious intent.
This is one of many "indiscrestions" that will hopefully be fully investigated by Congresss and reported by the Press.