Civil Liberties

Seedy Gonzales

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Today's Washington Post asserts that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales knew about numerous FBI surveillance violations prior to Inspector General Glenn Fine's report on FBI abuses to Congress in March. Coincidentally, Gonzales decided not to tell Congress about them when the PATRIOT Act was up for renewal:

As he sought to renew the USA Patriot Act two years ago, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales assured lawmakers that the FBI had not abused its potent new terrorism-fighting powers. "There has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse," Gonzales told senators on April 27, 2005.

Yet in his first weeks on the job, Gonzales' office was made aware of several instances that did not jive with that pesky document known as the Constitution:

Two of the earliest reports sent to Gonzales, during his first month on the job, in February 2005, involved the FBI's surveillance and search powers. In one case, the bureau reported a violation involving an "unconsented physical search" in a counterintelligence case. The details were redacted in the released memo, but it cited violations of safeguards "that shall protect constitutional and other legal rights." The second violation involved electronic surveillance on phone lines that was reinitiated after the expiration deadline set by a court in a counterterrorism case.

The report sent to Gonzales on April 21, 2005, concerned a violation of the rules governing NSLs, which allow agents in counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations to secretly gather Americans' phone, bank and Internet records without a court order or a grand jury subpoena. In the report—also heavily redacted before being released—the FBI said its agents had received a compact disc containing information they did not request. It was viewed before being sealed in an envelope.

Gonzales received another report of an NSL-related violation a few weeks later. "A national security letter . . . contained an incorrect phone number" that resulted in agents collecting phone information that "belonged to a different U.S. person" than the suspect under investigation, stated a letter copied to the attorney general on May 6, 2005.

Well, the FBI can't be held accountable if businesses are too cooperative and give up too much information, can they? You know they'd at least report the oversight:

Some of the reports describe rules violations that the FBI decided not to report to the intelligence board. In February 2006, for example, FBI officials wrote that agents sent a person's phone records, which they had obtained from a provider under a national security letter, to an outside party. The mistake was blamed on "an error in the mail handling." When the third party sent the material back, the bureau decided not to report the mistake as a violation.

Ok, but the FBI would completely discard the information they didn't request, right?:

The memos also detail instances in which the FBI wrote out new NSLs to cover evidence that had been mistakenly collected. In a June 30, 2006, e-mail, for instance, an FBI supervisor asked an agent who had "overcollected" evidence under a national security letter to forward his original request to lawyers. "We would like to check the specific language to see if there is anything in the body that would cover the extra material they gave," the supervisor wrote.

But Gonzales had no idea this stuff was going on:

At least two other reports of NSL-related violations were sent to Gonzales, according to the new documents. In letters copied to him on Dec. 11, 2006, and Feb. 26, 2007, the FBI reported to the oversight board that agents had requested and obtained phone data on the wrong people.

Nonetheless, Gonzales reacted with surprise when the Justice Department inspector general reported this March that there were pervasive problems with the FBI's handling of NSLs and another investigative tool known as an exigent circumstances letter.

Either Gonzales lied to Congress or he is the most incompetent department head in Washington, and that's saying a lot.

More from reason on National Security Letters here and here. More on Gonzo here.