The FBI improperly and, in some cases, illegally used the USA Patriot Act to secretly obtain personal information about people in the United States, a Justice Department audit concluded Friday.

And for three years the FBI has underreported to Congress how often it forced businesses to turn over the customer data, the audit found.

FBI agents sometimes demanded the data without proper authorization, according to the 126-page audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. At other times, the audit found, the FBI improperly obtained telephone records in non-emergency circumstances.

The audit blames agent error and shoddy record-keeping for the bulk of the problems and did not find any indication of criminal misconduct.

Still, “we believe the improper or illegal uses we found involve serious misuses of national security letter authorities,” the audit concludes.

This information was discovered, not by a lawsuit, not by a test case, but by an internal audit. Those who would take this as proof that the Patriot Act should be repealed would be jumping the gun, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and a number of other cliches. The government, in revealing this, shows that it can indeed police itself to some degree, even regarding as sensitive a subject as national security.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller called Fine’s audit “a fair and objective review of the FBI’s use of a proven and useful investigative tool.”

The finding “of deficiencies in our processes is unacceptable,” Mueller said in a statement.

“We strive to exercise our authorities consistent with the privacy protections and civil liberties that we are sworn to uphold,” Mueller said. “Anything less will not be tolerated. While we’ve already taken some steps to address these shortcomings, I am ordering additional corrective measures to be taken immediately.”

If you think that the Patriot Act should be repealed because it is being misused, you’d best hope that same standard isn’t used against every other government program and department. You couldn’t get a budget passed on that.

(As an aside, this is one of the big reasons smaller-government conservatives believe what they do. Too much power and money flowing around Washington is bound to result in waste and misuse.)

This is troubling, if non-specific:

Fine’s annual review is required by Congress, over the objections of the Bush administration.

It’s not mentioned what those objections are in the article. However, given how the liberals and the media enjoy outing legal secret programs, you can sort of understand why the administration would have some issues with this. Still, I think the audit is a good idea.

(As an aside, where’s all the outrage from the liberals and the media about the outing of legal anti-terrorism measures, instead of the outing of a CIA employee who had a desk job at Langley?)

(As an aside, notice how the phrase “the liberals and the media” just seems to keep coming up?)

Gotta agree with these guys, though.

Senators outraged over the conclusions signaled they would provide tougher oversight of the FBI _ and perhaps limit its power.

“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 committee’s top Republican, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, said the FBI appears to have “badly misused national security letters.” The senator said, “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 FBI is just asking for further reigning in. If they don’t watch it, these folks will have their way:

The American Civil Liberties Union said the audit proves Congress must amend the Patriot Act to require judicial approval anytime the FBI wants access to sensitive personal information. “The Attorney General and the FBI are part of the problem and they cannot be trusted to be part of the solution,” said Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU’s executive director.

What’s interesting is that John Kerry, while campaigning for President, suggested that terrorism should be a law enforcement issue. Isn’t the FBI considered law enforcement? A little irony there.

Doug Payton blogs at Considerettes.

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