A Justice Department audit has concluded that the FBI has misused some provisions of the Patriot Act to covertly obtain personal information about individuals. The audit also found that for the past three years the Bureau has underreported to Congress how often it has forced businesses to turn over personal data about customers. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that the type of behavior documented in the report is unacceptable. He also ordered further investigation, and said that the filing of criminal charges was a possibility.

“Once we get that information, we’ll be in a better position to assess what kinds of steps should be taken. There is no excuse for the mistakes that have been made, and we are going to make things right as quickly as possible,” Gonzales told reporters. FBI Director Robert Mueller took responsibility for the behavior that the audit uncovered. “I am to be held accountable. The inspector general went and did the audit that I should have put in place many years ago,” Mueller said.

According to the Patriot Act, intelligence agencies are allowed to use letters, also called administrative subpoenas, in suspected terrorism and espionage cases. These letters allow the FBI to require telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus and other businesses to produce and turn over personal records about their customers or subscribers to the Bureau, without a judge’s approval. The Justice Department auditor found instances where the FBI demanded personal information without proper authorization, or in non emergency circumstances. “In many cases, there was no pending investigation associated with the request at the time the exigent letters were sent,” the audit concluded.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said that it appears that the FBI, “badly misused national security letters. This is, regrettably, part of an ongoing process where the federal authorities are not really sensitive to privacy and go far beyond what we have authorized.” “The report indicates abuse of the authority” Congress gave the FBI, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “You cannot have people act as free agents on something where they’re going to be delving into your privacy.” The report has already led to call from civil rights groups for Congress to modify the Patriot Act.

There are a number of reasons why the Patriot Act was a bad idea. The most important of these is that the Act gave too much unchecked authority and power to the intelligence community. The Patriot Act was passed when the nation was still in the grips of post 9/11 hysteria, and it turns out that most of the members of Congress who voted for it had not even bothered to read it first.

 

Due to the nature of their activities, all intelligence agencies will always be tempted to cross the line and violate privacy if left unsupervised. The Patriot Act has done nothing but give the FBI and the administration repeated black eyes, so it would be in the best interests of all innocent American citizens for Congress to revise and the president to sign, a new Patriot Act that takes away this unilateral power from the FBI.

 

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