WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers from both parties called Friday for limits on anti-terrorism laws in response to a Justice Department report that the FBI improperly obtained telephone logs, banking records and other personal information on thousands of Americans.
The audit by the department's inspector general detailed widespread abuse of the FBI's authority to seize personal details about tens of thousands of people without court oversight through the use of national security letters. It found, for example, that the FBI hatched an agreement with telephone companies allowing them to issue739 emergency letters asking for more than 3,000 phone numbers -- often without subpoenas, without an emergency or even without an actual investigative case.
The FBI then covered its tracks in 2006 by issuing blanket letters authorizing many of the requests retroactively, according FBI officials and congressional aides briefed on the effort.
The disclosures prompted a public apology from FBI Director Robert Mueller and promises of reform from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was the focus of a new tide of criticism from Democrats and Republicans already angry about his handling of the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
"I am the person responsible," Mueller said in a hastily scheduled news conference. "I am the person accountable, and I am committed to ensuring that we correct these deficiencies and live up to these responsibilities."
Democrats and Republicans alike said Gonzales, Mueller and the Bush administration failed to properly monitor the FBI and guard the privacy rights of U.S. citizens and legal residents. The report came at the end of a difficult political week for the Bush administration, following the conviction of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff in the CIA leak case and damaging allegations by fired federal prosecutors.
Top lawmakers raised the possibility that Congress would seek to curb the Justice Department's powers, most likely by placing restrictions on the Patriot Act anti-terrorism law.
"This goes above and beyond almost everything they've done already," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who was among a host of Democrats promising investigative hearings. "It shows just how this administration has no respect for checks and balances."
Sen. Arlen Specter, Pa., the Judiciary committee's ranking Republican, told reporters that Congress may "impose statutory requirements and perhaps take away some of the authority which we've already given to the FBI, since they appear not to be able to know how to use it."
Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who has been pressing for a review of national security letters since 2005, said the report "confirms the American people's worst fears about the Patriot Act."
A national security letter is a type of administrative subpoena that allows the FBI to demand records from banks, credit-reporting agencies and other companies without the supervision of a judge. The Patriot Act significantly expanded the FBI's ability to use them, and a reauthorization of the law last year required the audit that was issued Friday.
The findings by Inspector General Glenn Fine were so at odds with previous claims by the Bush administration that Capitol Hill was peppered Friday with retraction letters from the Justice Department attempting to correct statements from earlier testimony and briefings. Gonzales and other officials had repeatedly portrayed national security letters as a well-regulated tool necessary for the prevention of terrorist attacks.
Fine's 199-page unclassified report found that the FBI issued more than 143,000 requests for information on more than 52,000 people through national security letters from 2003 to 2005, but dramatically understated those numbers in reports to the Congress required by law. Nearly half the people targeted were U.S. citizens or legal residents, and the proportion of such "U.S. persons" increased over the three-year period, the report said.