FBI may abuse terror law, senators say
Access to records held to infringe on privacy; close watch is urged
WASHINGTON -- Legislators expressed concern yesterday that the FBI was aggressively pushing the powers of the antiterrorist USA Patriot Act to gain access to private phone and financial records of ordinary people.
''We should be looking at that very closely," said Senator Joseph R. Biden, the Delaware Democrat who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. ''It appears to me that this is, if not abused, being close to abused."
Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agreed, saying the government's expanded power highlights the risks of balancing national security against individual rights.
''It does point up how dangerous this can be," said Hagel, who appeared with Biden on ABC's ''This Week."
Under the Patriot Act, the FBI issues more than 30,000 letters allowing the investigations each year, a hundredfold increase over norms, The
The security letters, which were first used in the 1970s, allow access to people's phone and e-mail records, as well as financial data and the Internet sites they surf. The 2001 Patriot Act removed the requirement that the records sought be those of someone under suspicion.
As a result, FBI agents can review the digital records of a citizen as long as the bureau can certify that the person's records are ''relevant" to a terrorist investigation.
Calling the recent growth in the number of letters a ''stunner," Biden said, ''Thirty thousand seems like an awful, awful stretch to me."
A Justice Department spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said yesterday that he could not immediately confirm or dispute the 30,000 figure, but he said the power to use the security letters was justified.
''The Department of Justice inspector general in August 2005 found no civil rights violations with respect to the Patriot Act," he said.
The FBI issued a national security letter last summer to George Christian, executive director of Library Connection, a cooperative of 26 libraries in Windsor, Conn., that share an automated system, The Washington Post reported yesterday.
The letter directed Christian to surrender ''all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" who used a computer at a library branch. The FBI directed him to tell no one about the letter.
Christian refused to hand over the records, and Library Connection Inc. filed suit for the right to protest the FBI demand in public.
A woman who answered a telephone at Christian's home in Trumbull, Conn., said yesterday that he would not speak with anyone.
Issued by the FBI without review by a judge, the letters are used to obtain electronic records from ''electronic communications service providers."
Such providers include Internet service companies but also universities, public interest organizations and almost all libraries, because most provide access to the Internet.
Last September in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, a federal judge in New York struck down this provision as unconstitutional on grounds that it restrains free speech and bars or deters judicial challenges to government searches.
That ruling has been suspended pending an appeal to the New York-based 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals. In a hearing last week the court suggested it might require the government to permit libraries, major corporations, and other groups to challenge FBI demands for records.
The Patriot Act provision involving national security letters was enacted permanently in 2001, so it was not part of Congress' debate last summer over extending some Patriot Act provisions.
As the Dec. 31 deadline has approached for Congress to renew provisions of the act, the House and Senate have voted to make noncompliance with a national security letter a criminal offense.
Senators Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, and Tom Coburn, a Republican of Oklahoma, both members of the Judiciary Committee, said that the expanded use of security letters was a ''clear concern" and that information gathered on citizens should be destroyed if it does not lead to a charge.
Coburn said on NBC's ''Meet the Press" that he ''certainly will" take steps to ensure that the documents are destroyed immediately.
A message left with the ACLU was not immediately returned yesterday.