Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Surprise! The FBI abused its power

Oh my, the FBI has apparently been very bad indeed over the past few years. Who knew that handing J. Edgar's boys (and girls) new, intrusive tools would lead them to abuse those tools the way they've abused the power given them in the past?

Well, anybody with realistic expectations, I guess.

This from The Washington Post:

The Justice Department's inspector general told a committee of angry House members yesterday that the FBI may have violated the law or government policies as many as 3,000 times since 2003 as agents secretly collected the telephone, bank and credit card records of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals residing here.

The IG testimony fleshes out the details of the report released earlier this month on FBI use and abuse of national security letters. In particular, the IG admits that upwards of 600 of the violations may be "cases of serious misconduct" in which the FBI improperly used the letters to force companies to surrender information about their customers. More troubling is that these abuses are in addition to the improper uses of national security letters already detailed in the report.

Fine's extrapolated tally of 3,000 likely illegal or improper letters did not include three other categories of wrongdoing disclosed in his report: One was a headquarters unit's use of 739 "exigent circumstances" letters to obtain telephone records from AT&T, Verizon and MCI on an emergency basis using false statements or improper documentation. The second was an improper use of 300 national security letters to obtain information for a single classified project. And the third was the FBI's use of improper letters to obtain the financial records of 244 people from banks.

Strictly speaking, I'm not at all surprised that the FBI abusively used national security letters. This is a federal agency that has a history of overstepping the bounds of its power. The bureau has been caught spying on political dissidents and even covering up crimes. To hand the bureau the authority to compel private organizations and individuals to surrender records without any judicial oversight is equivalent to dangling a bottle of whiskey in front of an alcoholic. You're just begging for bad results.

The only way to keep an agency like the FBI within spitting distance of proper conduct is to strictly limit its power and carefully oversee its activities. In the absence of enforced boundaries and the scrutiny of skeptical eyes, the FBI will transgress again and again.

And we'll act like we're surprised each time.

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