Wednesday, March 14, 2007

FBI abuse of national security letters a warning
that Patriot Act provisions need tightening.

From the Houston Chronicle editorial board:

The report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine documents widespread FBI misuse of national security and exigency letters to collect personal data on citizens without seeking court orders or following Justice Department guidelines.

The letters function as subpoenas, allowing FBI agents to gather confidential information from commercial sources if it is deemed relevant to a case. Fine's audit surveyed 293 national security letters issued by the agency involving 77 investigations and found 22 instances of possible violation of FBI and Justice Department regulations, including some that may have broken legal statutes.

During the three-year time period of the audit sample, the FBI reported issuing more than 143,000 such letters, raising fear that the number of unjustified information breaches was high. Fine's sample indicated that the number of letters was actually underreported by as much as 22 percent. In 16 percent of the cases reviewed the letters were improperly issued. The report also documented that the FBI on numerous occasions improperly collected phone billing records on surveillance targets from phone companies by falsely claiming an emergency need when there was none.

Click here for the rest.

Yeah well, this was predicted by numerous individuals at the time that the Patriot Act was passed. Of course, such fears were summarily dismissed within the mainstream political discourse, driven by Bush-stoked fears of bin Laden planting bombs in your own personal living room or garage. The point to this is not to say "told you so," although I am saying "told you so." The point is that law enforcement simply cannot be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to civil rights; it has to be forced to do so. Civil rights are completely at odds with law enforcement's overall mandate, to catch bad guys. That is, there is overwhelming institutional pressure on cops to do their thing, civil rights aren't really a part of that--indeed, civil rights get in their way, which means that violations are bound to happen. The only way to ensure that violations don't happen is to make them very illegal, to put stumbling blocks in the way of zealous cops such that following the law is procedurally easier than breaking it.

I mean, you just can't trust these guys. They're really, really, really into catching crooks, which makes them a bit off in the head sometimes.