March 21, 2007 3:47 PM PDT

Senators won't take away FBI surveillance power

The FBI's illegal use of secret methods to obtain confidential information, including telephone and e-mail records, on American citizens, drew criticism from a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday.

But the committee's senior members stopped short of calling for a repeal of the portion of the Patriot Act, which Congress hastily approved after September 11, 2001, that awarded the FBI broad and nearly unchecked powers to use the so-called national security letters, which are written requests for confidential information that do not require a judge's signature and cannot legally be disclosed by the recipient.

"I have long been troubled by the scope of national security letters and the lack of accountability for their use," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the chairman of the Judiciary committee. Leahy's hearing follows a similar one a day earlier in the House of Representatives.

While Leahy called the FBI's missteps "egregious errors and violations," and noted that FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are expected to testify in the next few weeks, he did not propose any mandatory judicial oversight.

National security letters came under Washington's klieg lights earlier this month after the Justice Department's inspector general reported "serious misuse" of the investigatory tool. The 2001 Patriot Act expanded the FBI's ability to use those letters to obtain confidential records from banks, credit card companies, credit bureaus, telephone companies and Internet service providers.

In the current political climate, with a constitutional showdown possible over federal prosecutors being fired in what some say was an attempt to thwart prosecutions, revisiting the Patriot Act is conceivable. The U.S. Senate voted 94-2 on Tuesday to rewrite the section of the law dealing with prosecutors' tenure, amended during negotiations over renewing the Patriot Act.

During Wednesday's hearing, Senate Republicans chided the Bush administration too, though much less harshly. "It is a little hard to understand why the FBI is only now moving for internal audits on these national security letters," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, was less willing to offer even mild admonishments. He asked Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, who was testifying: "Do you expect them to be perfect, the FBI agents?"

Fine's report found a pattern of misconduct throughout the FBI, including agents concealing their use of national security letters from Congress, a dramatic increase in U.S. citizens and residents being targeted, and misuse of the letters to obtain information that only a judge may approve for release.

The report did say, however, that there was no evidence that the FBI agents' unlawful activities "constituted criminal misconduct." Unlike conducting an unlawful wiretap, which is a federal felony, unlawful use of national security letters carries no criminal penalties.

The closest any senator came to calling for rewriting the Patriot Act was a remark by Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. He said it was a "grave mistake" to give such powers to the FBI and said it was not surprising they had been misused.

Feingold was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in October 2001.

"Congress needs to exercise extensive and searching oversight of those powers, and it must take corrective action," Feingold said. "The government cannot be trusted to exercise those powers lawfully. Congress must address these problems and fix the mistakes it made in passing and reauthorizing the flawed Patriot Act."

Also on Wednesday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center sent a letter (click for PDF of the EPIC letter) to the Senate asking that the section of the 2001 Patriot Act that expanded use of national security letters be repealed.

The FBI has been caught conducting illegal wiretaps as well. CNET News.com reported earlier this month that the FBI submitted false documents to a court when seeking authorization to perform wiretaps.

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17 comments

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Repeal it!
The act should have never been passed in the first place. Repeal it
and prosecute all those involved in the clearly illegal and
unconstitutional activities since it was passed! Start with G.W.
Bush.

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little
safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. -- Benjamin Franklin,
Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759
Posted by Kevin Cotham (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I second the motion
Repeal the (Un)patriot act. The entire bill is a travesty.
Posted by PzkwVIb (462 comments )
Link Flag
Indeed!
Especially because the recipient can't even disclose information about the letter! There goes freedom of speech!
Posted by ddesy (4336 comments )
Link Flag
No joke!
Wow, serious abuse of unchecked government authority? I can't believe it! Surely not in this government of, by and for the people. *wink* I can't imagine why our government would be hesitant to take away their absolute authority to do what they want when they want and to whomever they want without need for justification. Let's all wave our flags and pretend out government is actually working for us.
Posted by Freiheit13 (92 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Government is exempt from the law.
"The FBI's illegal use of secret methods to obtain confidential information.."

Congress: "Well *sure* its illegal.. but... ya know.. we just don't really care.. its for your own good, shut up.. the laws are for YOU not us."
Posted by Solaris_User (267 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Government in Contempt
From top to bottom we seem to have a Federal Government that feels the Constitution and the rule of law doesn't apply to them. The FBI has been violating laws for as long as its been in existence. The Bush Administration approves illegal surveillance and countermands each piece of legislation with "signing statements". Congress rushes to pass the "Patriot Act" twice and literally none of our elected officials bother to even read it before voting on it. Republicans act as enablers for all this monkey business while Democrats are content to mostly mouth mild admonishments.
What ever happened to accountability? It's time to remove the criminals and their enablers within the government. The problem starts at the top and until Bush/Cheney are impeached nothing of substance will change. They have set the stage for all these illegalities if not orchestrated them. Until examples are made of those in government that act above the law then we will only see bolder and more brazen disrespect for our system of government by those whose jobs are to uphold it. Don't expect any real changes soon.
Posted by zanzzz (138 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Impeachment
Impeachment would be the best answer right now, but unfortunately Bush isn't lying about sex right now. I guess major crimes are allowed!
Posted by ddesy (4336 comments )
Link Flag
Oooo - the kooks at moveon.org are gonna be mad!
Heh heh heh heh.
Posted by fafafooey (171 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You moron.
Open your eyes, this is not a partisan issue.

EVERYONE voted for it except one person. A near unanimous vote to exempt the federal police from the law.. tell me you don't have a problem with this?

What if the kooks get there people elected and they then can use these powers for political reasons? It's not just going to be used to hunt terrorists.
Posted by Solaris_User (267 comments )
Link Flag
These days unethical but lawful is just fine!
Nobody broke the law when Plame's name was leaked

Nobody broke the law when the DA's were fired

Nobody broke the law when the security letters were used for
non-counter-terrorism purposes

Nobody broke the law when they tortured people in allowable
ways

WE'VE BECOME PATHETIC!

This type of behavior, regardless of political affiliation, should
be completely unacceptable to us.
Posted by Mark Greene (163 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Excuse me...but, uh...
...if what the FBI is doing is "illegal," then how is it that Senators like Leahy can allow the FBI to continue to do it? The author here needs to use his head for something other than a hat rack.

If it was truly "illegal" then that would make Leahy and the rest of them just as "guilty," wouldn't it? Probably, because the Senators are allowing the FBI to continue doing what it is doing, it means that in reality even Senators like Leahy believe the FBI is doing the job it's supposed to do to protect the population from terrorism--which is what the Patriot Act is all about--if the CNET author doesn't clearly understand its purpose.

Second, the article pretends that lots and lots of the security letters have been sent out by the FBI without bothering to specify that in total some 750 such letters were sent out by the FBI. Wow, out of 300 million Americans, those requests for information on 750 people just about covers everybody in the US, doesn't it? How shocking.

And last, the article cleverly omits the fact that the investigations were done for the express purpose of rooting out terrorists--not because the FBI wants to "spy" on people for grins and giggles--or some kind of kinky sex games, etc.

Basically, idiot "news" articles like this, which tell only a third of the story and manage to hopelessly slant even that incomplete fraction, are the reason why CNET no longer sits among my permanent bookmarks.
Posted by Walt Connery (89 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Blind....
The Patriot Act doesn't protect anybody. Believing that it does is nothing more than fooling yourself.

Wake up and smell the stench of this administration!
Posted by ddesy (4336 comments )
Link Flag
remember "Animal House"?
Being fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.
Posted by Dalkorian (3000 comments )
Link Flag
750 is 750 too many
The principal is important wheter it it is 7 million, 750, or one. CNet reports about it as bad because it is. Frankly, if ther only way to protect us is to strip our civil liberties, then we don't want your protection.
Posted by PzkwVIb (462 comments )
Link Flag
The Knee-Jerk Act...
is a much more appropriate name.

Naming it the Patriot Act was an insult to the founders of this country. They who respected and valued the rights of the individual.

It makes me sick.
Posted by freemarket--2008 (5058 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Feingold the only brave one in the bunch.
Every damn one of the other congressment and senators who refused to overturn this act are cowards.
Couple of very apropo quotes from Abraham Lincoln:
?Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.?
and
?America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.?
Patriot Act was the beginning of the End of the Great American Empire.
Posted by Dr_Zinj (727 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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