FBI: No Need To Curb Domestic Surveillance

fbi seal, generic graphic
The FBI is resisting legislation that would put more restrictions on domestic surveillance of Americans' private records, saying the agency already has tightened its rules to crack down on wrongful use of national security letters.

FBI general counsel Valerie E. Caproni told a House panel Tuesday that the agency has responded to abuses outlined in internal reports by tightening the requirements for issuing national security letters.

National security letters, or NSLs, are investigative tools used to compel businesses to turn over customer information without a judge's order or grand jury subpoena.

She said the agency has improved training programs on the use of NSLs and limited information that can be gathered from third parties - like phone companies and banks.

"In light of the FBI's tremendous progress in this regard, further legislative changes, including the measures envisioned by (Congress), would be neither necessary nor appropriate," Caproni said in testimony to the House subcommittee on the constitution.

Majority Democrats and some Republicans in Congress disagree. Lawmakers in the House and Senate are pushing legislation that would limit the FBI's ability to secretly collect reams of information on the bank, telephone, credit card and internet accounts of private Americans involved in terrorism investigations.

One key concern is Caprioni's statement that new FBI policies amount to sufficient "checks and balances" against the secret letters violating people's civil liberties.

"Some of us think that 'checks and balances' means that you check with another branch of government," Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said during the hearing. "All these (Department of Justice) employees are checking and balancing themselves."

Caprioni pointed out that Glenn A. Fine, DOJ's inspector general, works for the agency and uncovered significant misuse of NSLs that he documented in two reports beginning last year.

Fine found that the FBI issued improper demands in 2006 for records of 3,860 telephone lines to justify the fact the bureau had obtained the data using an illegal procedure that is now prohibited.

The probe also found that a federal court twice denied the FBI's request for a warrant. The bureau got the same records without a warrant using national security letters.

Fine's first report led to new procedures, according to the FBI and the Justice Department.

For some in Congress, the new rules aren't enough. Subcommittee chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is sponsoring legislation that would tighten restrictions on how much information should be given to the FBI under an NSL and require that they clearly pertain to a foreign power or a specific agent, rather than the current standard that they be relevant to a terror probe.

The House bill also would create a new rule that FBI agents must destroy information obtained under an NSL for a person who is no longer of interest to the probe.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the issue April 23.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks gave new urgency to the government's search for terrorists. The Patriot Act expanded the FBI's authority to use the letters as a tool in this search, prompting immediate protests from civil libertarians who said the new law did not include sufficient safeguards against abuse by the government.