The FBI repeatedly broke the law by secretly accessing information about US citizens under a law passed to curb terrorism, according to the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General in a report that prompted a sharp rebuke from legislators and civil libertarians.
The violations included demands for personal information by agents who had no official authorization to do so and the improper obtainment of telephone records in non-emergency circumstances. FBI officials also underreported to Congress how often it used powers granted under the Patriot Act to force businesses to turn over customer data.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged the problems identified in the report (PDF) were "serious and must be addressed immediately." Neither he, nor FBI Director Robert Mueller disputed the report's conclusions.
The Patriot Act was passed in 2001 in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It expanded the FBI's ability to obtain information under national security letters, which are tantamount to subpoenas that don't require a judge's approval. The act gave the FBI authority to demand customer information from a host of sources, including ISPs, telephone companies and banks. About three-quarters of the letters issued between 2003 and 2005 involved counterterror investigations, while the remainder were for espionage cases.
The damning report proved fodder for the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics of the act, which said it proves more judicial oversight is needed when the FBI wants to access personal information.