FBI admits abuse of Patriot Act
The Bush administration misused its authority and improperly obtained personal information about people in the US on hundreds of occasions, according to a report released by a US Justice Department watchdog.
Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said he was to be held accountable for the abuses, which involved the improper use of so-called national security letters, which allowed the FBI to obtain personal information, including telephone, banking, and e-mail records.
"I am committed to ensuring that we correct these deficiencies,'' Mr Mueller said, adding that he would not resign.
A report by Glenn Fine, inspector-general of the Justice Department, found that the FBI circumvented the legal restrictions on the use of the letters by obtaining telephone records from three unnamed telecommunications carriers without first getting required legal permission and that the FBI routinely sought out e-mail records improperly.
In one "possible violation" of the law detailed in the report, the inspector-general said the FBI issued a national security letter seeking education records from a North Carolina university in connection with the 2005 London Tube and bus bombings.
The report found that, in this case, the FBI sought records it was not authorised to demand under the law, including admissions applications, housing information, and campus health records.
In addition, the report found the FBI "significantly understated" the total number of letters it requested in half-yearly reports to Congress from 2003 to 2005.
Alberto Gonzales, attorney-general, said in a letter to the inspector-general that the problems raised in the report were "serious" and must be addressed immediately.
However, the national security letters were "vital investigative tools" to the US effort to "fight and win the war on terror".
Mr Gonzales ordered the FBI's inspection division to investigate the use of national security letters and said that â€“ although there had been no allegation of misconduct by FBI lawyers â€“ the office of professional responsibility would examine the role played by attorneys in the matter.
The inspector-general's report comes at a difficult time for the Justice Department, which was under fire this week from lawmakers in Washington who are investigating the potential political motivation behind the recent firing of at least eight US attorneys.
The report drew angry reactions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Senator Arlen Specter, the most powerful Republican on the judiciary committee.
Mr Specter said Congress had reauthorised the Patriot Act, which gave the government the authority to issue the letters, on the basis that the administration would be in strict compliance with the act's limitations.
"The judiciary committee will now have to undertake comprehensive oversight on this important matter and perhaps act to limit the FBI's power by revising the Patriot Act," Mr Specter said.