"Trust Us" Doesn’t Cut It Any More

Last week the Senate’s Judiciary Committee had the opportunity to hear from the Justice Department’s Inspector General about ­ as he put it ­ “the widespread and serious misuse of the FBI’s national security letter authorities.” Today we need to hear straight from the FBI Director how and why this abuse occurred, and why it was not caught earlier.

Had it not been for this independent audit, conducted carefully and thoughtfully by the Inspector General’s Office, Congress and the American public might never have known how the National Security Letter, or NSL, authorities were being abused by the FBI. The NSL authorities operate in secret. The Justice Department’s classified reporting on the use of NSLs was admittedly inaccurate. And when, during the reauthorization process, Congress asked questions about how these authorities were being used, we got empty assurances and platitudes that have turned out to be mistaken as well.

Unfortunately, I believe that the FBI’s apparently lax attitude and in some cases grave misuse of these potentially very intrusive authorities is attributable in no small part to the USA Patriot Act. That flawed legislation dramatically expanded the NSL authorities, essentially granting the FBI a blank check to obtain some very sensitive records about Americans, including people not under any suspicion of wrong-doing, without judicial approval. Congress gave the FBI very few rules to follow, and accordingly shares some responsibility for the FBI’s troubling implementation of these broad authorities.

This Inspector General report proves that “trust us” doesn’t cut it when it comes to the government’s power to obtain Americans’ sensitive business records without a court order and without any suspicion that they are tied to terrorism or espionage. It was a grave mistake for Congress to grant the government broad authorities and just keep its fingers crossed that they wouldn’t be misused. We have the obligation, the responsibility, to put appropriate limits on government authorities ­ limits that allow agents to actively pursue criminals and terrorists, but that also protect the privacy of innocent Americans.

Congress needs to exercise extensive and searching oversight of those powers, and it must take corrective action. The Inspector General report has shown both that current safeguards are inadequate and that the government cannot be trusted to exercise those powers lawfully.


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Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees.

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