Today's Article
Justice report
reveals that the FBI
may have often
collected data on
U.S. citizens illegally.
The American Spark
Justice Department Report Shows Data Collection May Be Illegal

By Cliff Montgomery - Mar. 23rd, 2007

From about 2002 to 2005, the FBI collected intimate information on the lives of about 52,000 people--citizen
and non-citizen alike--and stored it in an intelligence database accessible to about 12,000 federal, state and
local law enforcement authorities, as well as to 'friendly' foreign governments.

The FBI did all this without ensuring that its data collection was legal, without ensuring that all the obtained
data matched its needs or requests, without properly tallying and reporting its efforts to Congress, and without
an intelligence oversight board ferreting out all of its abuses.

So says the Justice Department's uncontested examination of one of the most widely used and controversial
governmental spying tools of the post-Sept. 11 era--the national security letter (NSL). A report released on
Mar. 9th by the department's Office of the Inspector General (IG) provides the first official glimpse into the use
of the letters. A
ccording to the report, the NSL provides more headaches than protection from terrorists.

"We believe," offered the inspector general's office in a summary on how the tool might have jeopardized the
privacy of U.S. residents, "that a significant number of NSL-related violations are not being identified or
reported by the FBI."

The 199-page study--which only occurred after Congress ordered the inspector general's office to produce it,
over the Justice Department's objections--does not go so far as to say that the FBI was engaged in deliberate
lawbreaking. But it does reveal that the bureau's 56 field offices and headquarters rarely followed the rules, or
flatly misunderstood them, as they employed the "Anti-Patriot Act" and three other laws to request the email
addresses, telephone records, and employment and credit histories of people considered 'relevant' to terrorism
or espionage investigations.

The problems began
after the 2001 terrorism attacks, when Congress passed laws such as the 'Anti-Patriot
Act' which essentially allowed the executive branch to ignore the 4th Amendment banning "unreasonable
search and seizure" .

In time this produced what the FBI itself has reported as at least a fivefold increase in annual requests. The
Bureau cited 39,000 requests in 2003, 56,000 in 2004 and 47,000 in 2005--involving a total of 24,937 "U.S.
persons" (including American citizens and green-card holders) and 27,262 foreigners in the country. In 2004
alone, nine NSLs requested telephone-subscriber information on 11,100 phone numbers.

But as high as these totals are, the inspector general's report reveals that the numbers still grossly understate
the Bureau's use of national security letters. After checking 77 case files at four FBI field offices, the IG found
that those offices had "significantly" underreported the number of requests they had made: in this tiny sample
alone, the real number was 22 percent higher.

The FBI also did not keep proper records of the investigations to which these requests were linked, according
to the IG report. For example, Bureau agents did not always obtain the correct, internal authorization for those
requests, or they made typographical errors in listing key telephone numbers and email addresses, or sought
information the laws did not permit them to have, according to the report.

While the FBI's numbers throughout the period studied understated the proportion of U.S. persons targeted
by the letters, one trend was clear: National security letters--which are not subject to public disclosure or judicial
review, and were at first considered positive tools against suspicious foreign nationals--were used increasingly
by the FBI to collect data on American citizens and green-card holders alike, the IG wrote.

Moreover, "once information is obtained in response to a national security letter, it is indefinitely retained and
retrievable" by authorized personnel, the report added.

For all that spying, the tens of thousands of data-collection requests have produced only a handful of criminal
charges directly related to terrorism or espionage, according to the IG report.

Only half of the FBI's field offices ever referred any of those targeted by such requests to prosecutors, the IG
wrote. In all, the most common charges were fraud, money laundering, and immigration violations.

But such field office errors were nothing compared with the major abuses by counterterrorism officials at FBI
headquarters, according to the IG study.

For example, the FBI on 739 occasions used secret contracts with three telephone companies to obtain
records related to 3,000 phone numbers after promising that requests for subpoenas had already been sent to
U.S. attorneys' offices--a claim which many times proved false, according to the report.

"I think [the report] shows that the bureau has failed to comply with the very minimal requirements that the law
imposes on the use of this authority, and underscores the problem that arises when an investigative agency
can unilaterally exercise such an invasive power," David Sobel, senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group, recently told
The Washington Post.