The USA Patriot Act that was rushed into law after 9/11 greatly expanded the FBI’s powers to secretly obtain telephone, Internet, business, medical and financial records without the permission of a judge or grand jury.
The vehicle for this was a national security letter, a sort of administrative subpoena that the local FBI office could issue on its own say-so that basically allowed open-ended searches. Previously, national security letters were issued only when the sought-after records specifically involved foreign intelligence agents or terrorists.
Predictably, the number of letters the FBI issued jumped dramatically, from 8,500 before the law was passed to 39,000 in 2003 to a high of 47,000 in 2005, according to a new audit by the Department of Justice’s inspector general. Congress did not become alarmed because the bureau seriously underreported the numbers, telling lawmakers that it had issued only 9,254 in 2003 and 2004.
The same report found “serious misuses of national security letter authorities,” with letters being issued in violation of bureau and departmental regulations and, on occasion, the law.
For whatever reassurance it’s worth, Inspector General Glenn Fine found that the misuse was not deliberate or systematic, but due to human error and sloppy record-keeping. But Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was probably on the mark when he said, “This is, regrettably, part of an ongoing process where the federal authorities are not really sensitive to privacy and go far beyond what we have authorized.”
That seems reason enough for Congress to revisit the Patriot Act as part of its cleaning up of the Bush administration’s overreaching in the war on terror.