From today’s Washington Post comes what can only be called the best argument against the PATRIOT Act ever:
A Justice Department investigation has found pervasive errors in the FBI’s use of its power to secretly demand telephone, e-mail and financial records in national security cases, officials with access to the report said yesterday.
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.
Officials said they could not be sure of the scope of the violations but suggested they could be more widespread, though not deliberate. In nearly a quarter of the case files Inspector General Glenn A. Fine reviewed, he found previously unreported potential violations.
And, of course, the reason these violations went unreported until now is because the PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to issue these so-called “national security” letters without having to submit the request for judicial review, as the 4th Amendment requires:
The letters enable an FBI field office to compel the release of private information without the authority of a grand jury or judge. The USA Patriot Act, enacted after the 2001 attacks, eliminated the requirement that the FBI show “specific and articulable” reasons to believe that the records it demands belong to a foreign intelligence agent or terrorist.
That law, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed national security letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.
Now the bureau needs only to certify that the records are “sought for” or “relevant to” an investigation “to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”
If nothing else, this episode demonstrates the reason why the 4th Amendment exists and why an independent judiciary is needed to review law enforcement’s activities. Unmonitored and unknown, the FBI has violated the rights of countless Americans.