WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats alike sternly warned the FBI on Tuesday that it risks losing its broad power to collect telephone, e-mail and financial records to hunt terrorists because of rampant abuses of the authority.
The threats were the latest blow to the embattled Justice Department and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is already on the defensive and fighting to keep his job over the firings of federal prosecutors.
The warnings came as the department’s chief watchdog, inspector general Glenn A. Fine, told the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI engaged in widespread and serious misuse of its authority to issue national security letters, which resulted in illegally collecting data from Americans and foreigners.
If the FBI doesn’t move swiftly to correct the mistakes and problems revealed last week in Fine’s 130-page report, "you probably won’t have NSL authority,” said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., a supporter of the power, referring to the data requests by their initials.
"I hope that this would be a lesson to the FBI that they can’t get away with this and expect to maintain public support for the tools that they need to combat terrorism,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the former Judiciary chairman, who called the abuses "a gross overreach.”
"Let this be a warning,” Sensenbrenner said.
Fine, who called the problems he uncovered inexcusable, said he did not believe they were intentional. Most involved information that could have been legally obtained if proper procedures had been followed, he said.
"We believe the misuses and the problems we found generally were the product of mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness, lack of training, lack of adequate guidance, and lack of adequate oversight,” Fine said.
Still, the FBI’s failure to control and monitor how it collected the information constituted "serious and unacceptable” lapses, Fine told the committee. He was to appear Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary panel.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., called the abuses part of a disturbing pattern of misconduct at the Justice Department.
"This was a serious breach of trust,” Conyers said. "The department had converted this tool into a handy shortcut to illegally gather vast amounts of private information while at the same time significantly underreporting its activities to Congress.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Congress should revise the USA Patriot Act, which substantially loosened controls over the letters.
"We do not trust government always to be run by angels, especially not this administration,” Nadler said. "It is not enough to mandate that the FBI fix internal management problems and record keeping, because the statute itself authorizes the unchecked collection of information on innocent Americans.”
Valerie Caproni, the FBI’s general counsel, testified that steps were already being taken to rectify the problems, which she called "a colossal failure on our part.”
"We’re going to have to work to get the trust of this committee back, and we know that’s what we have to do, and we’re going to do it,” Caproni said.
That did little to appease lawmakers who said they had fought hard to give the Justice Department wide latitude to chase terrorists in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"From the attorney general on down, you should be ashamed of yourself,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "We stretched to try to give you the tools necessary to make America safe, and it is very, very clear that you’ve abused that trust.”
Some Republicans, however, said the FBI’s expanded spying powers were vital to tracking terrorists.
"The problem is enforcement of the law, not the law itself,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the panel’s senior GOP member. "We need to be vigilant to make sure these problems are fixed.”
Both Caproni and Fine said national security letters were an indispensable tool in terrorism investigations.
In a review of headquarters files and a sampling of just four of the FBI’s 56 field offices, Fine found 48 violations of law or presidential directives from 2003 through 2005, including failure to get proper authorization, making improper requests and unauthorized collection of telephone or Internet e-mail records. He estimated that many violations hadn’t been found or reported.
The bureau has launched an audit of all 56 field offices to determine the full extent of the problem. Members of the Senate panel will likely demand answers about the matter from FBI Director Robert Mueller at a broader hearing next week.
In 1986, Congress first authorized FBI agents to obtain electronic records without approval from a judge using national security letters. In 2001, the Patriot Act eliminated any requirement that the records belong to someone under suspicion. Now an innocent person’s records can be obtained if FBI agents consider them merely relevant to an ongoing terrorism or spying investigation.
Fine’s review, authorized by Congress over Bush administration objections, found that the number of national security letters requested by the FBI skyrocketed after the Patriot Act became law.
He also found more than 700 cases in which FBI agents obtained telephone records through "exigent letters” which asserted that grand jury subpoenas had been requested for the data, when in fact such subpoenas never been sought. He called those instances "the most troubling aspect of this.”
On the Net:
Department of Justice: http://www.usdoj.gov
House Judiciary Committee: http://judiciary.house.gov/