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Congress Probes FBI Abuse of Power in Gaining Personal Data

U.S. legislators on Tuesday heard first hand the findings of an internal government report, which revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, abused its powers in obtaining personal information during investigations of suspected terrorists. VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports an FBI official acknowledged the revelations have damaged the agency's credibility.

Nearly 80 minutes into the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers banged the gavel to restore order after a member of the audience briefly disrupted the proceedings.

The comment "We don't trust the FBI!" underscored what the FBI's General Counsel, Valerie Caproni, told the committee earlier in the hearing - that the bureau needs American public support to fight terrorism, particularly in neighborhoods susceptible to radical influence. "We need people in those communities to call us when they hear or see something that looks amiss. We know that we reduce the probability of that call immeasurably, if we lose the confidence of any part of the American public," she said.

That trust, however, has been eroded amid revelations that the FBI may have misused so-called National Security Letters to obtain private information about people, without getting prior approval from a judge or a grand jury.

Controls over how the letters are used was loosened under the so-called Patriot Act, a controversial law passed by Congress to hunt for terrorists in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

In his testimony, Inspector General Glenn Fine told the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI dramatically increased the number of National Security letters in violation of statues, and policies established by the bureau and the U.S. Attorney General. But Fine said the FBI did not intentionally violate the law. "We believe the misuses and problems that we found generally were the problem of mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness, lack of training, lack of adequate guidance and lack of adequate oversight," he said.

Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, however, noted that the FBI was aware of the abuses as early as 2004. The Inspector General conceded that his investigation did not inquire about the actions of individuals. He said it would be appropriate for the FBI to learn exactly who was doing what, when and why, and to hold people accountable for any violations.

Committee member Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat and critic of the Patriot Act, said the FBI abuses could be attributed to the law itself. "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," he said.

But Republican Lamar Smith of Texas said the problem is due to poor implementation. "It is clear from the report that these deficiencies are the result of the poor implementation and administration of national security letter authority. In other words, the problem is enforcement of the law, not the law itself," he said.

Members of the Judiciary Committee warned the FBI that it could lose its expanded surveillance authority, if the bureau fails to correct its mistakes.