Friday, March 09, 2007

Inherent abuse of power by the FBI

I suppose some folks out there will be shocked that when given the power to access private information without court oversight the FBI, you'd better sit down now, abused that power.

A Justice Department investigation has found pervasive errors in the FBI's use of its power to secretly demand telephone, e-mail and financial records in national security cases, officials with access to the report said yesterday.

The inspector general's audit found 22 possible breaches of internal FBI and Justice Department regulations -- some of which were potential violations of law -- in a sampling of 293 "national security letters." The letters were used by the FBI to obtain the personal records of U.S. residents or visitors between 2003 and 2005. The FBI identified 26 potential violations in other cases.

Officials said they could not be sure of the scope of the violations but suggested they could be more widespread, though not deliberate. In nearly a quarter of the case files Inspector General Glenn A. Fine reviewed, he found previously unreported potential violations.

And not only does the IG not know how widespread the violations were (remember his report was based on a sampling), but the particulars of some of the vioaltions were particularly troubling.

But [Inspector General] Fine found that FBI agents used national security letters without citing an authorized investigation, claimed "exigent" circumstances that did not exist in demanding information and did not have adequate documentation to justify the issuance of letters.

In other words, the FBI used these National Security Letters in cases that didn't involve national security, as well as in cases where the matters being investigated were not really so urgent as to require warrantless investigation.

And while the FBI director is blaming the violations on a failure to follow internal policies I would suggest that such failures are inherent when government agents are able to act without judicial oversight.

People are people and they are by varying degrees zealous, clever, and lazy. And so are FBI agents.

By allowing what are essentially extrajudicial search warrants, the Patriot Act provisions which allow the use of national security letters invite abuse.

And if a power can be abused, it will be. Absent some countervailing force that is. This is why we have three branches of government, so they can keep an eye on each other.

So when in a fit of fear, like, say 9/11, we foolishly remove such oversight, why be shocked when such abuse occurs?

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