Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tell me again why we need the FBI?

Not long after the Justice Department revealed that the FBI has been abusing its power to secretly gather private information by issuing national security letters, an internal audit by the feds finds that the problem is worse than first suspected.
An internal FBI audit has found that the bureau potentially violated the law or agency rules more than 1,000 times while collecting data about domestic phone calls, e-mails and financial transactions in recent years, far more than was documented in a Justice Department report in March that ignited bipartisan congressional criticism.

The new audit covers just 10 percent of the bureau's national security investigations since 2002, and so the mistakes in the FBI's domestic surveillance efforts probably number several thousand, bureau officials said in interviews. The earlier report found 22 violations in a much smaller sampling.

The vast majority of the new violations were instances in which telephone companies and Internet providers gave agents phone and e-mail records the agents did not request and were not authorized to collect. The agents retained the information anyway in their files, which mostly concerned suspected terrorist or espionage activities.

But two dozen of the newly-discovered violations involved agents' requests for information that U.S. law did not allow them to have, according to the audit results provided to The Washington Post. Only two such examples were identified earlier in the smaller sample.
Several thousand violations. That's a lot of screwing up by the feds. You'd think they'd get a handle on this whole national security letter thing after a couple of years of pawing through financial records and phone logs.

Of course, that assumes that the feds want to use their powers appropriately. Unfortunately, the FBI has a history of playing fast and loose with the authority at its command, from tainting evidence that comes through its laboratories to letting its informants commit murder so long as they remain useful to the bureau. The feds always apologize and promise to do better--and then the next scandal comes along, making it clear that the FBI's internal culture remains genuinely crooked no matter how often it gets caught out.

I wonder how often we have to play this game before we realize that the problem isn't some temporary transgression that can be fixed by shuffling personnel and tightening the rules; the problem is the FBI itself. We've created an unaccountable super-police force that accumulates authority and responsibility with each passing year. It's become a dangerous government agency--one that should be curtailed or abolished.

But I've said that before. Instead, we'll huff and puff a bit about this latest scandal, until it, too, is forgotten. And then we'll start all over again over some new outrage a couple of years down the line.


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