The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) may have violated the law or government policies as many as 3,000 times since 2003 as agents secretly collected the telephone, bank and credit card records of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals residing in the country, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
The report, quoting Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine at a House committee on Tuesday, said that according to the FBI's own estimate, as many as 600 of these violations could be "cases of serious misconduct" involving the improper use of "national security letters" to compel telephone companies, banks and credit institutions to produce records.
Fine's estimate of the incidence of serious abuses was extrapolated from his investigators' scrutiny of 293 national security letters, out of 44,000 letters -- containing 143,074 data requests -- that the FBI has reported issuing during the three-year period he reviewed.
National security letters are comparable to subpoenas but are issued directly by the bureau without court review. An FBI tally showed that the bureau made an average of 916 such requests each week from 2003 to 2005.
Fine attributed the FBI's "troubling" abuse of the letters to "mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness, lack of training, lack of adequate guidance and lack of adequate oversight."
Fine's extrapolated tally of 3,000 likely illegal or improper letters did not include three other categories of wrongdoing disclosed in his report.
One was a headquarters unit's use of 739 "exigent circumstances" letters to obtain telephone records from AT&T, Verizon and MCI on an emergency basis using false statements or improper documentation. The second was an improper use of 300 national security letters to obtain information for a single classified project. And the third was the FBI's use of improper letters to obtain the financial records of 244 people from banks.