FBI Audit Exposes Widespread Abuse Of Patriot Act Powers

March 13, 2008 12:00 am

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ACLU Condemns National Security Letter Abuses And Calls For Independent Oversight Of FBI’s Unchecked Authority

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WASHINGTON – A report released today by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs) reveals a systemic, widespread abuse of power. The FBI’s authority to issue NSLs was widely expanded by the USA Patriot Act and it has been increasingly used to collect private information on American citizens without court approval. Today’s audit follows a report released last year that found serious breaches of department regulations and multiple potential violations of the law.

Remarkably, today’s report notes two instances where the FBI, on its own initiative, issued NSLs to get sensitive information after the FISA court had already rejected its requests. There are currently bills in both the House and Senate that would narrow the scope of the FBI’s NSL authority and bring the statute back in line with the Constitution.

“The FBI has flagrantly put aside the rule of law and its internal guidelines time and again,” said Michael German, ACLU National Security Policy Counsel and former FBI Agent. “Without an outside check, agents are able to demand at will and ask questions later. This is the kind of abuse that is inevitable when we broaden the government’s surveillance power and do not attempt to modernize privacy standards. Both the House and Senate have bills waiting to be marked up that will greatly limit this authority. Congress needs to act on this now.”

The ACLU has successfully challenged the NSL power in two separate lawsuits. In one case, involving an Internet Service Provider, a federal court in September struck down the NSL provision of the Patriot Act, declaring unconstitutional its gag orders, which forbid recipients of NSLs from telling anyone about the record demand. The government is currently appealing the decision. In addition, the ACLU filed a lawsuit last June to enforce its Freedom of Information Act request to force the Department of Defense and the CIA to turn over documents concerning those agencies’ use of NSLs. That lawsuit is pending.

“The Inspector General’s report makes abundantly clear that the FBI has been given far too much surveillance power. Because this power is not subject to meaningful judicial oversight, it is being grossly abused,” said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “Despite claims by the Justice Department that the problems have been fixed, we believe that the abuse continues today. There is a pressing need for stricter guidelines and more robust oversight. The Inspector General’s report shows what happens when the FBI is asked to police itself.”

There are several more IG reports outstanding, including a review of the FBI’s involvement in the mistreatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Today’s media reports indicating that FBI agents were filmed “manhandling” a terrorism suspect in detention reinforce the need for these reports to be completed and made available to the public in a timely manner.

More information on the ACLU’s work on National Security Letters is available at: www.aclu.org/nsl

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