An internal U.S. government report says the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, abused its powers in secretly obtaining personal information in investigations targeting terrorism or espionage suspects. Law enforcement officials are already pledging to correct the mistakes, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone.
The report by the Justice Department's inspector general says the FBI improperly and at times illegally abused its power when it demanded and received customer information from telephone companies, Internet service providers and financial institutions in the course of terrorism and espionage investigations.
The report found that the FBI misused the authority contained in what are called National Security Letters to compel the release of private information without getting prior approval from a judge or a grand jury.
The use of the letters as an investigative tool has expanded dramatically since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The inspector general's report found 26 possible violations by the FBI, and said 22 of those were the result of errors by the bureau.
Civil liberties groups expressed alarm at the report and called on Congress to limit the FBI's power under the Patriot Act, the set of anti-terror laws passed by lawmakers in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.
"It confirms our greatest suspicions about the abuse of Patriot Act powers and specifically, the abuse of the National Security Letter powers," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It paints a rather troubling picture of the misuse and abuse of the National Security Letters in law enforcement efforts."
Law enforcement officials were quick to acknowledge the mistakes, though they added there was no intentional abuse of power.
FBI Director Robert Mueller says the abuses noted in the report are unacceptable and says corrective measures will be taken immediately to prevent future violations.
"National Security Letters are absolutely essential for us to do our job in protecting the American public against terrorist attacks," he said. "But it is equally important that as we exercise these authorities, we do it consistent with the privacy protections and civil liberties that we in the FBI are sworn to uphold."
The report also found that the FBI was vastly underreporting the number of National Security Letters it sought in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The report says FBI investigators often made improper requests for personal information from private companies in the course of investigations.
Democrats in Congress seized on the Justice Department report as evidence that the Bush administration is not doing an adequate job of protecting civil liberties, a charge often rebuffed by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Civil liberties advocates are expected to urge Congress to force investigators to adhere to the law when using the tools provided in the Patriot Act.
"We need to go back to the situation where we were before the Patriot Act and limit these very powerful tools to situations in which the government is actually tracking suspected terrorists or spies," said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which describes itself as a private group working to protect the digital rights of all Americans.
Democrats vowed to hold the Bush administration accountable for protecting civil liberties after they won control of Congress last November. Already, two House committees have announced they will hold hearings on the FBI violations.