Audit reveals extent of FBI abuse of national security letters

When it comes to the FBI spying on the general population, things are much worse than previously thought. An internal audit found that the FBI found has committed more than 1,000 violations of domestic spying rules as agents poked into domestic phone calls, emails and financial transactions, reports the Washington Post.

When it comes to the FBI spying on the general population, things are much worse than previously thought. An internal audit found that the FBI found has committed more than 1,000 violations of domestic spying rules as agents poked into domestic phone calls, emails and financial transactions, reports the Washington Post.

The audit discovered that since 2002, there have been several thousand domestic surveillance mistakes. The most recent violations involved telephone companies and Internet providers who gave agents phone and email records the agents did not request and were not authorized to collect. The agents kept the information anyway.

Many agents did not understand or follow the required legal procedures when collecting personal information with the National Security Letter, or NSL - a post-9/11 legal device that allows federal agents to demand personal information without prior review by a judge. In other words, it removes the judicial review that is at the heart of the warrant process. And, no surprise, when you remove judicial review, you get ... police abuse.

More than 19,000 such letters were issued in 2005, seeking 47,000 pieces of information, mostly from telecommunications companies.

"The FBI's comprehensive audit of National Security Letter use across all field offices has confirmed the inspector general's findings that we had inadequate internal controls for use of an invaluable investigative tool," FBI General Counsel Valerie E. Caproni said. "Our internal audit examined a much larger sample than the inspector general's report last March, but we found similar percentages of NSLs that had errors."

The FBI is taking steps to remedy the abuse, and agents must identify mistakenly produced information and isolate it from investigative files.

"Human errors will inevitably occur with third parties, but we now have a clear plan with clear lines of responsibility to ensure errant information that is mistakenly produced will be caught as it is produced and before it is added to any FBI database," Caproni said.

Unfortunately, better internal controls are not the answer. The answer is to deep-six the NSL and require law enforcement to get a judge's approval before invading individuals' privacy.