NYT : Report on F.B.I. Use of Personal Data

Friday, March 14, 2008

Report on F.B.I. Use of Personal Data

By ERIC LICHTBLAU and DAVID STOUT | March 13, 2008

WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation has made “significant progress” in how it handles the personal information of Americans as it pursues terrorists, but the agency has a way to go to stamp out all procedural abuses, a Justice Department report said on Thursday.

The department’s inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, said his office’s interviews with F.B.I. Director Robert S. Mueller III and his top aides had shown a commitment in “energy, time and resources” to fixing deficiencies, and that “significant progress” had been shown since the abuses were first disclosed a year ago.

However, Mr. Fine’s report cautioned, “we believe it is too early to definitively state whether the new systems and controls developed by the F.B.I. and the department will fully eliminate the problems” uncovered in 2007.

The inspector general’s report, nearly 200 pages long, comes amid disclosures by officials that the F.B.I. has repeatedly approved the use of “blanket” records demands to justify the improper collection of thousands of phone records.

F.B.I. Assistant Director John Miller said today that bureau officials were pleased over all with the report. “But despite the low error rate attributed to the F.B.I., we continue to strive for zero errors, and we believe that the measures we have put in place will help ensure that,” Mr. Miller said. “We fully realize, as does the inspector general, the indispensable value of these investigative tools. We are committed to using them in ways that maximize their national security value while providing the highest level of privacy and protection of the civil liberties of those we are sworn to protect.”

But the reaction of a leading House Democrat indicated that the issues raised in the report would not quickly go away. “I remain disappointed,” said Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, while acknowledging the bureau’s progress. He said he would question Mr. Mueller about the report at committee hearings next month.

The bureau appears to have used the blanket records demands at least 11 times in 2006 alone as a quick way to clean up mistakes made over several years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to a letter provided to Congress by a lawyer for an F.B.I. agent who witnessed the missteps.

The F.B.I. has come under fire over the past year for its inappropriate use of so-called national security letters to gather records on Americans in terrorism investigations, but details have not previously been disclosed about its use of “blanket” warrants, a one-step operation used to justify the collection of hundreds of phone and e-mail records at a time.

Under the USA Patriot Act, the F.B.I. received broadened authority to issue the national security letters on its own authority — without the approval of a judge — to gather records like phone bills or e-mail transactions that might be considered relevant to a particular terrorism investigation.

The Justice Department inspector general found in March 2007 that the F.B.I. had routinely violated the standards for using the letters and that officials often cited “exigent” or emergency situations that did not really exist in issuing them to phone providers and other private companies.

In the updated report on Thursday, the inspector general reported that the violations continued through 2006, when the F.B.I. instituted new internal procedures.

The inspector general’s ongoing investigation is also focusing on the F.B.I.’s use of the blanket letters as a way of justifying the collection of large amounts of records at one time. Agency officials acknowledged the problem Wednesday, calling it inadvertent, and said officials had been instructed that they could no longer issue blanket orders. Instead, officials have to determine why particular records are considered relevant.

A letter sent last week to Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, provides new details on the agency’s use of the national security letters, including the practice of issuing the blanket demands.

A copy of the letter was provided to The Times. It was written by Stephen M. Kohn, a Washington lawyer representing Bassem Youssef, an F.B.I. agent who reported what he thought were abuses in the use of national security letters and was interviewed for three days by the inspector general. In a separate matter, Mr. Youssef is suing the bureau in a discrimination claim.

Mr. Grassley said Wednesday that he was concerned by the issues raised in Mr. Kohn’s letter.

“In the past, the F.B.I. has shown a propensity to act as if it were above the law,” he said. “That attitude clearly needs to stop. Part of the way we can help the F.B.I. clean up its act is to pay close attention to information from whistle-blowers like Bassem Youssef. We need aggressive follow-up from the inspector general to ensure accountability and reform.”

When the abuses were revealed a year ago, bipartisan outrage erupted on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers were not mollified by the accidental nature of the errors. “When it comes to national security, sloppiness should be reserved for the hog lot, not the F.B.I.,” Mr. Grassley said at the time.

Mr. Mueller accepted full responsibility and vowed to do whatever was necessary to fix the problems.

By 2006, F.B.I. officials began learning that the bureau had issued thousands of “exigent” or emergency records demands to phone providers in situations where no life-threatening emergency existed, according to the account of Mr. Youssef, who worked with the phone companies in collecting records in terrorism investigations. In these situations, the bureau had promised the private companies that the emergency records demands would be followed up with formal subpoenas or properly processed letters, but often, the follow-up material never came.

This created a backlog of records that the F.B.I. had obtained without going through proper procedures. In response, the letter said, the bureau devised a plan: rather than issuing national security letters retroactively for each individual investigation, it would issue the blanket letters to cover all the records obtained from a particular phone company.

“When Mr. Youssef was first informed of this concept, he was very uncomfortable with it,” his lawyer, Mr. Kohn, said in his letter to Senator Grassley. But the plan was ultimately approved in 2006 by three senior officials at the highest levels of the F.B.I., and in the process, Mr. Kohn maintains, the solution may have worsened the problem.

“They made a mistake in cleaning up a mistake,” Mr. Kohn said, “because they didn’t know the law.”

An F.B.I. official who asked for anonymity because the inspector general is still examining the blanket warrant issue said the practice was “an attempt to fix a problem.”

“This was ham-handed but pure of heart,” the official said. “This was nothing evil, but it was not the right way to do it.”