The Justice Department's inspector general told a committee of angry House members that the FBI may have violated the law or government policies as many as 3,000 times since 2003 as agents secretly collected the telephone, bank and credit card records of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals residing here.
Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said that according to the FBI's own estimate, as many as 600 of these violations could be "cases of serious misconduct" involving the improper use of "national security letters" to compel telephone companies, banks and credit institutions to produce records.
National security letters are comparable to subpoenas but are issued directly by the bureau without court review. They largely target records of transactions rather than personal documents or conversations. An FBI tally showed that the bureau made an average of 916 such requests each week from 2003 to 2005, but Fine told the House Judiciary Committee that FBI recordkeeping has been chaotic and "significantly understates" the actual use of that tool.
Fine, amplifying the criticisms he made in a March 9 report, attributed the FBI's "troubling" abuse of the letters to "mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness, lack of training, lack of adequate guidance and lack of adequate oversight."
Fine's extrapolated tally of 3,000 likely illegal or improper letters did not include three other categories of wrongdoing disclosed in his report: One was a headquarters unit's use of 739 "exigent circumstances" letters to obtain telephone records from AT&T, Verizon and MCI on an emergency basis using false statements or improper documentation. The second was an improper use of 300 national security letters to obtain information for a single classified project. And the third was the FBI's use of improper letters to obtain the financial records of 244 people from banks.
Although the FBI's policy is to hold such records for at least 20 years, even if the target of the data collection proves not to have any terrorist connections, Caproni said that if no legal authority can be found during an audit now underway, the records will be destroyed.