The FBI has committed at least 13 violations of the guidelines governing its conduct under the Patriot Act serious enough to be referred to the Intelligence Oversight Board. That’s an arm of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which is charged with examining violations of laws and directives.
These facts came to light as the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
But the problem may be much bigger.
According to David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Council, which brought the FOIA suit, case numbers on the documents suggest at least 287 violations of FBI guidelines occurred between 2002 and 2004, and the real number could be higher. But only 13 of the cases were considered serious enough to require further investigation.
Some of the violations appear to be simple neglect about when paperwork should be filed or renewed. Several involved failure to file annual updates on ongoing surveillance, which allows Justice Department lawyers to monitor cases. In two cases, e-mails were collected after authorization had expired. In one case, a bank privacy statute was violated and in another an improper physical search was conducted.
Failing to file paperwork can seem minor, but in government work paperwork and timely filing of required information provide an avenue of accountability. Failure to file updates on ongoing investigations can be perfectly innocent or the stuff of cover-up. When failure to file occurs, supervisory agencies — and the American people who pay the taxes to support all these activities — simply don’t know what an agency is doing with its power.
EPIC, a civil-liberties organization with a special emphasis on computer communications and privacy, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for this information — which is important to know since Congress is considering whether to allow certain provisions of the Patriot Act to “sunset” or expire in January. The information supplied was so inadequate that EPIC had to go to court to force full compliance — and even under court order the FBI dragged its feet.
This suggests something less than the openness and accountability Americans have reason to expect from government agencies.
Congress, which is considering renewal of the Patriot Act in a House-Senate conference committee, should beef up the reporting requirements, especially reports filed with Congress.