On March 9, the FBI admitted to illegally seizing confidential information from Americans. It also disclosed that it had criminally spied on the public, a direct violation of the US Constitution, and had been doing so for the past three years.
In a 126-page audit by Justice Department Inspector Glenn A. Fine, the FBI was implicated on several occasions for abusing powers granted to the organization by the USA Patriot Act of 2001, following the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales responded hastily to the bureau’s transgressions during a press conference later that day, saying, “There is no excuse for the mistakes that have been made, and we are going to make things right as quickly as possible”
“People have to believe in what we say,” Gonzales continued, “and so I think this was very upsetting to me. And it’s frustrating.”
Gonzales also alluded to the possibility of criminal charges being pursued against the suspected FBI agents involved in the misuse of powers following further investigation, an investigation to be preformed by the FBI itself.
“Once we get that information, we’ll be in a better position to assess what kinds of steps should be taken,” Gonzales told reporters. “We have some work to do to reassure members of Congress and the American people that we are serious about being responsible in the exorcise of these authorities.”
The bureau has begun to audit all 56 field offices to determine the extent of the misuse of power that has taken place.
Preempting the headhunters in congress who were quick to demand that the FBI’s top overseers take responsibility for the crimes, Robert Mueller, Director of the FBI told the press, “I am to be held accountable.”
Mueller also said he would not resign but work to correct the bureaus mistakes. He also commended Fine’s whistle-blowing efforts saying, “The inspector general went and did the audit that I should have put in place many years ago.”
The initial audit by Fine found 48 violations of law from 2003 to 2005, many of which having to do with the constitutional legitimacy of National Security Letters.
The letters, in a nutshell, are requests for information issued by the US government to Internet providers, telephone companies, universities, public organizations, most libraries, and financial and credit companies in order to attain e-mails, telephone records, travel records, financial records and other information of the sort.
The letters are intended, the FBI said, to acquire vital information imperative to successfully waging the struggle against terrorism and foreign espionage. Legislation passed in 1986 loosened the limitations on the NSL’s, allowing the FBI to attain electronic records of any person without a warrant.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, all requirements that the letters be issued to people under suspicion were abolished.
As of today, any American may be subjected to the snooping of the NSL’s, whether he or she is a suspected criminal or not.
This fact is significant considering 143,074 NSL’s were requested between 2003 and 2005. In 2005, the final year the audit reports, 53 percent of the letters concerned permanent residents of the US.
Fine estimates there may be as many as 3,000 incidents in which the bureau’s powers of surveillance and investigation have violated the law, but his ball-park figure has yet to be confirmed.
Mueller maintains his supportive position concerning the letters, saying, “They are the bread and butter of our investigations.”
Outraged civil liberty advocate groups, such as The American Civil Liberties Union, were quick to point out the conflicting nature of the bureau’s investigation. “The Attorney General and the FBI are part of the problem,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “They cannot be trusted to be a part of the solution.”
Many congressmen and women were also appalled to hear of the crimes disclosed in the damning audit and the FBI’s subsequent investigation.
“This… proves that ‘Trust us’ doesn’t cut it,” said Sen. Feingold, D-Wis., a longtime outspoken skeptic of the Government’s authority to secretly snoop in the private lives of Americans in the name of counter terrorism.
A growing concern among members of Congress is that the USA Patriot Act has given an excessive amount of authority and oversight to the government at the expense of the public’s privacy.
“Many of us have been saying that the potential for abuse of the Patriot Act’s national security letter authority is almost without limit,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., on March 14.
“This report demonstrates how that potential has now become a reality.”