The FBI has abused a key Patriot Act provision and knowingly violated the law to spy on Americans' telephone, Internet and other personal records, according to a report released last week by the US Justice Department. Congress must put the brakes on this cavalier behavior, but it can't stop there -- the Bush Administration's unprecedented pattern of disregarding the law stretches far beyond examples in this report. Tell Congress to defend your privacy now.
Before the Patriot Act became law, the FBI could use so-called National Security Letters only for securing records of suspected terrorists or spies. Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can obtain private records about anybody without court approval, as long as it "believes the information could be relevant to an authorized terrorism or espionage investigation," according to the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The Justice Department's Inspector General said the FBI's misuse of its authority included issuing NSLs to spy on people who were not the subject of any existing investigation whatsoever. The FBI lied to Congress and underreported its use of NSLs by many thousands, the report said. Worse still, the FBI ignored its own lawyers' advice and intentionally evaded the Patriot Act's bounds, improperly requesting and obtaining personal records through so-called "exigent letters" never authorized by Congress.
That's a small sampling of the horror story painted by the report. Had Congress not ordered the Inspector General to review the FBI's activities last year, these abuses might still be secret. From the moment the Patriot Act was passed, the EFF said it was ripe for abuse. "It's clearer than ever that Congress should repeal the Patriot Act's expansion of NSL powers and reform the act as a whole," the EFF said.
The EFF also called for Congress to investigate the Bush administration's use of surveillance powers, including the National Security Agency's massive illegal domestic spying program. "Congress and the American public have been kept in the dark about such clear violations of the law and Americans' privacy for far too long," the EFF said. "Immediate and thorough oversight hearings are necessary to uncover the truth and hold the administration accountable."