Republicans and Democrats sternly warned the FBI on Tuesday that it could lose its broad power to collect telephone, e-mail and financial records to hunt terrorists after revelations of widespread abuses of the authority detailed in a recent internal investigation.
Their threats came as the Justice Department's chief watchdog, Glenn A. Fine, told the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI engaged in widespread and serious misuse of its authority in illegally collecting the information from Americans and foreigners through so-called national security letters.
If the FBI doesn't move swiftly to correct the mistakes and problems revealed last week in Fine's 130-page report, "you probably won't have NSL authority," said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., a supporter of the power, referring to the data requests by their initials.
"From the attorney general on down, you should be ashamed of yourself," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "We stretched to try to give you the tools necessary to make America safe, and it is very, very clear that you've abused that trust."
If Congress revokes some of the expansive law enforcement powers it granted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Issa said, "America may be less safe, but the Constitution will be more secure, and it will be because of your failure to deal with this in a serious fashion."
The FBI's failure to establish sufficient controls or oversight for collecting the information constituted "serious and unacceptable" failures, Fine told the committee.
Democrats called Fine's findings an example of how the Justice Department has used broad counterterrorism authorities to trample on privacy rights.
"This was a serious breach of trust," said Rep. John Conyers (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich., the Judiciary chairman. "The department had converted this tool into a handy shortcut to illegally gather vast amounts of private information while at the same time significantly underreporting its activities to Congress."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Congress should revise the USA Patriot Act, which substantially loosened controls over the letters.
"We do not trust government always to be run by angels, especially not this administration," Nadler said. "It is not enough to mandate that the FBI fix internal management problems and recordkeeping, because the statute itself authorizes the unchecked collection of information on innocent Americans."
Some Republicans, however, said the FBI's expanded spying powers were vital to tracking terrorists.
"The problem is enforcement of the law, not the law itself," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the panel's senior GOP member. "We need to be vigilant to make sure these problems are fixed."
Fine said he did not believe the problems were intentional, although he acknowledged he could not rule that out.
"We believe the misuses and the problems we found generally were the product of mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness lack of training, lack of adequate guidance and lack of adequate oversight," Fine said.
"It really was unacceptable and inexcusable what happened here," he added under questioning.
Valerie Caproni, the FBI's general counsel, said she took responsibility for the abuses and believed they could be fixed in a matter of months.
"We're going to have to work to get the trust of this committee back, and we know that's what we have to do, and we're going to do it," she said.
In a review of headquarters files and a sampling of just four of the FBI's 56 field offices, Fine found 48 violations of law or presidential directives during between 2003 and 2005, including failure to get proper authorization, making improper requests and unauthorized collection of telephone or Internet e-mail records. He estimated that "a significant number of ... violations throughout the FBI have not been identified or reported."
The bureau has launched an audit of all 56 field offices to determine the full extent of the problem. The Senate Judiciary Committee is to hear Wednesday from Fine on his findings, and will likely question FBI Director Robert Mueller on it at a broader hearing March 27.
In 1986, Congress first authorized FBI agents to obtain electronic records without approval from a judge using national security letters. The letters can be used to acquire e-mails, telephone, travel records and financial information, like credit and bank transactions.
In 2001, the Patriot Act eliminated any requirement that the records belong to someone under suspicion. Now an innocent person's records can be obtained if FBI field agents consider them merely relevant to an ongoing terrorism or spying investigation.
Fine's review, authorized by Congress over Bush administration objections, concluded the number of national security letters requested by the FBI skyrocketed after the Patriot Act became law in 2001.
Fine found more than 700 cases in which FBI agents obtained telephone records through "exigent letters" which asserted that grand jury subpoenas had been requested for the data, when in fact such subpoenas never been sought.