WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI has broadened the scope of records it seeks under a section of the Patriot Act that permits agents to gather wide-ranging materials during national security investigations, and also took too long to create procedures for the handling of certain nonpublic information it collects, according to a watchdog report issued Thursday as Congress weighs the future of government surveillance authority.
The report from the Justice Department’s inspector general examines how the FBI, between the years of 2007 and 2009, used its investigative authority under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
That section of law, which has also been used to authorize the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of American phone records, permits the FBI to obtain “tangible things” — including books or records — that are deemed relevant to terrorism probes.
The process generally begins when an FBI agent fills out a business records request form that summarizes the investigation and describes the specific items being sought. The application is then presented for approval to a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
But over the years, the FBI has expanded the categories of information sought under Section 215 in ways that continue to demand oversight, the inspector general said. Materials produced in response to Section 215 orders “now range from hard copy to reproductions of business ledgers and receipts to gigabytes of metadata and other electronic information,” the report said. Technological advancements to the Internet and society’s use of it “have also expanded the quantity and quality of electronic information available to the FBI,” according to the report.
Agents who were interviewed for the review described the Patriot Act authority as a valuable tool to develop leads and corroborate other information, but said they “did not identify any major case developments” that came from the records obtained through Section 215 orders. And in some cases, information was gathered through the surveillance on people who were not subjects of or associated with an FBI investigation, according to the report.
The release of the report comes as Congress weighs whether to renew, modify or let expire Section 215 and the bulk collection of phone records. The White House and House leaders urged the Senate on Thursday to take up a bill that would end the bulk collection while still preserving other surveillance powers that are set to expire on June 1. Later in the day, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee floated a compromise that would end bulk collection of phone records after a two-year transition period.
Federal law enforcement officials, including FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, have cautioned Congress against permitting the law to expire, saying public safety could be jeopardized.
The report, the third such inspector general review in the last decade, said the FBI had generally satisfied earlier recommendations for improvement related to its surveillance authorities.
But it faulted the Justice Department for not acting until 2013 — years after it was required to do so — to develop proper procedures to minimize the retention and release of nonpublic information collected on Americans who are swept up in intelligence investigations.
Alex Abdo, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, called the inspector general’s report “an indictment of the system of secret oversight” relied on as checks for FBI and NSA surveillance.
“It’s evidence that the kind of reform we need is not superficial tinkering with government authorities,” Abdo said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s systemic reform.”
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