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It's time to rein in the FBI's snooping

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published March 28, 2007


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A scathing report by the Justice Department's inspector general has found that the FBI has been seriously abusing its powers to gather confidential information. Congressional hearings on the report's conclusions have further demonstrated that the bureau cannot be trusted to police itself when it comes to the privacy rights of Americans. Congress should consider taking back some of the powers granted to the FBI under the USA Patriot Act.

Inspector General Glenn Fine's report detailed the FBI's use of an administrative subpoena known as a "national security letter," which can be obtained without court oversight. The Patriot Act, passed just weeks after the terror attacks of 9/11, markedly loosened the controls on the use of these letters. They allow the agency to demand that telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks and credit card companies, as well as others, turn over their customers' personal data.

The records are supposed to be relevant to an authorized terrorism investigation, but Fine discovered that this is not always the case. He found that the FBI flouted nearly every rule governing the NSLs and that they were being used increasingly to focus on American citizens and residents.

What also became clear from Fine's report is that the FBI has been using NSLs to gather confidential records to a much greater extent than it had before the controls were removed. From 2003 to 2005, the years that Fine investigated, the agency issued 143,000 demands for information using NSLs. In the year 2000, only 8,500 NSLs were issued.

Fine also found routine disregard for the few rules that remained on NSL use. On potentially hundreds of occasions, the agency demanded records claiming that it was an emergency situation and that a subpoena had been applied for, when neither claim was true.

While Fine chalks up much of this inexcusable conduct to poor training, internal controls and record keeping, we think the pattern suggests something more disturbing. When the FBI tells a telephone company that its demands are due to an emergency, when there isn't one, it is not an inadvertent act.

Since the report has been released to the public, the FBI has been doing a mea culpa and promising to follow all of Fine's recommendations. Trust us, the agency says. Whether spying on Martin Luther King Jr. or on Vietnam-era protesters or on today's Iraq war peace groups, the FBI has demonstrated through modern history that it will violate civil liberties unless properly constrained. It is not too much to ask that the FBI submit to the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - a secret court situated in the Justice Department and always available - when it seeks confidential data. Only then can there be faith that the right balance between record collection and personal privacy will be struck.

[Last modified March 27, 2007, 21:08:01]


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