WASHINGTON – FBI Director Robert Mueller took responsibility Friday for a watchdog’s findings that the bureau had abused its expanded, post-Sept. 11 powers to secretly obtain Americans’ bank, phone, credit and e-mail records in counterterrorism investigations.
The report by the Justice Department’s inspector general said the FBI itself had identified 26 intelligence violations and that his auditors found many other privacy infringements in reviewing some of the 143,074 national security letters the bureau issued between 2003 and 2005. The letters give the FBI power to obtain private business and personal records without court review.
In more than 700 cases, the investigators found, the bureau issued emergency or “exigent” letters demanding telephone records and promising that subpoenas would follow, but none did. The FBI also underreported its use of the national Security letters to Congress, the report said.
The report prompted an outpouring of harsh criticism from Congress, with some leading lawmakers joining civil libertarians in calling for a rollback of the FBI’s authority under the Patriot Act. It also was another major embarrassment for the Bush administration and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over their failure to safeguard civil rights in hunting and interrogating terrorists, even as Gonzales tries to quell a furor surrounding the recent firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
“I am the person responsible. I am the person accountable,” Mueller told a news briefing, a solemn expression on his face. Praising Inspector General Glenn Fine for “an excellent report,” Mueller said he’s ordered an inquiry to determine whether any employees should be disciplined.
Mueller stressed that the inspector general’s report identified no intentional violations, that the national security letters were an “absolutely essential” tool in counterterrorism investigations and that many of the report’s recommendations were being implemented.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said House Democrats would honor their duty to defend the Constitution “by investigating the disturbing” disclosures.
Gonzales, in a speech to a meeting of privacy professionals, said Friday that he and Mueller were upset to learn of the inspector general’s findings and that “there is no excuse for the mistakes that have been made.”
Afterward, he said: “When people don’t do their jobs there needs to be accountability, and so there will be accountability.”