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FBI broke the law
Berkshire Eagle Online
By Lara Jakes Jordan, Associated Press
March 10, 2007

WASHINGTON — Years of suspicion about the government's authority to secretly poke around in Americans' personal information boiled over yesterday when the FBI admitted it did so illegally in some cases over the past three years.

"This ... proves that 'Trust us' doesn't cut it," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a longtime skeptic of the FBI's power to secretly compel businesses to turn over private information about customers in anti-terror cases.

Apologetic and angry over his bureau's transgressions, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III nonetheless maintained that the powers are a vital tool in catching terrorists and spies. "Trust — but verify," Mueller said, promising stronger oversight of his agents and lawyers to prevent further illegal intrusions.

A damning 126-page audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, released yesterday, concluded that the FBI sometimes demanded personal data on people without official authorization over a three-year period. In other cases, agents improperly obtained telephone records in nonemergency circumstances.

The audit also concluded that the FBI for three years underreported to Congress how often it used national security letters, which are administrative subpoenas, to get customer data.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales left open the possibility of pursuing criminal charges against FBI agents or lawyers who improperly used the powers granted the agency in 1986 and expanded in 2001 under the US Patriot Act.

"People have to believe in what we say," Gonzales said. "And so I think this was very upsetting to me. And it's frustrating."

The audit incensed lawmakers in Congress already seething over the recent dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys. Democrats who lead House and Senate judiciary and intelligence oversight panels promised hearings on the findings. Several lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — raised the possibility of scaling back the FBI's authority.

At a glance...

  • Who did what: Federal law enforcement chiefs say the FBI broke the law in prying into Americans' personal information.
  • So what: Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III apologized and pledged to stop it.
  • What next: Disciplinary action, not criminal charges, are likely.

— Associated Press

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