The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) admitted on Friday that the agency had improperly, and sometimes illegally, used the USA Patriot Act to secretly get personal information about people inside the United States.
The FBI "accept the report's findings and its recommendations and have already taken steps to address many of these recommendations," FBI director Robert Mueller said at a news conference, referring to the Justice Department's inspector general's report. The report, issued on Friday, said the FBI used a form of administrative subpoena to obtain thousands of telephone, business and financial records without prior judicial approval.
It said the bureau lacked sufficient controls to make sure the subpoenas, which do not require a judge's prior approval, are properly issued and that it does not follow even some of the rules it does have, and that the FBI for three years had underreported to Congress how often it forced businesses to turn over the customer data.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said findings in the report were unacceptable, and Mueller said he was to held accountable.
"I am to be held accountable," Mueller said.
The inspector general's audit found 22 possible breaches of internal FBI and Justice Department regulations -- some of which were potential violations of law -- in a sampling of 293 "national security letters." The letters were used by the FBI to obtain the personal records of U.S. residents or visitors between 2003 and 2005. The FBI identified 26 potential violations in other cases.
The use of national security letters has grown exponentially since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. In 2005 alone, the audit found, the FBI issued more than 19,000 such letters, amounting to 47,000 separate requests for information.
The use of national security letters has been a hotly debated domestic intelligence issue. They were once used only in espionage and terrorism cases, and then only against people suspected as agents of a foreign power.
With the passage of the Patriot Act, their use was greatly expanded and was allowed against Americans who were subjects of any investigation. The law also allowed other agencies like the Homeland Security Department to issue the letters.