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Democrats raised new questions Tuesday about whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales knew about FBI abuses of civil liberties when he told a Senate committee that no such problems occurred.
Lying to Congress is a crime, but it wasn’t clear if Gonzales knew about the violations when he made his statements to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
One Democrat called for a special counsel to investigate. President Bush continued to support his longtime friend.
“He still has faith in the attorney general,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel told reporters.
On April 27, 2005, while seeking renewal of the broad powers granted law enforcement under the USA Patriot Act, Gonzales told the Senate Intelligence Committee, “There has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse” from the law enacted after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Six days earlier, the FBI had sent Gonzales a copy of a report that said its agents had obtained personal information to which they were not entitled.
Several of the reported violations were referred to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board and copied to other officials. The heavily redacted documents, obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation under the Freedom of Information Act, include referrals to the board dating back to 2004. Several referrals were copied to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
One was sent to Gonzales, dated April 21, 2005 — less than a week before he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
It was not clear whether Gonzales ever saw the documents reporting the violations, and several Justice Department officials said Tuesday they could not remember discussing specific cases with him before an internal March report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine that outlined the problems.
Jim Baker, director of the department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, said he had briefed Gonzales and predecessors about what he described as “violations of law, regulation, policy by the FBI.”
“They have happened in the past,” Baker said. “I don’t remember discussing these specific ones. But I have discussed and informed attorneys general — including this one — about mistakes the FBI has made.”
The new developments were first reported by The Washington Post, which said the violations included unauthorized surveillance and an illegal property search.
In a conference call Tuesday with reporters, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein described the violations outlined in the documents as mistakes — not intentional acts of abuse or misconduct.
“That’s not in any way to say that mistakes are not significant. It is a concern,” Wainstein said.
Still, “Any human endeavor has the potential of mistakes,” Wainstein said. “When intelligence investigations are done at the pace and the rapidity and the urgency that they’re done now after 9/11, there are the possibilities of mistakes.”
The FBI documents released show that many of the possible violations were the result of wrong phone numbers or of Internet provider companies giving agents more information than was requested. A June 1, 2005, memo from the FBI’s general counsel, for example, indicates that a special agent had “erroneously issued” a National Security Letter for an incorrect phone number in an investigation.
“However, he did so in good faith,” the memo concludes. “Further, immediately upon reviewing the subscriber information, he discontinued his review of the records and properly sequestered the information.”
The documents were released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The San Francisco-based privacy advocacy group filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records earlier this year after Justice Department auditors found the FBI had misused its authority to investigate in some terrorism and spy cases.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a longtime critic of the Patriot Act, called for a special counsel.
“Providing false, misleading or inaccurate statements to Congress is a serious crime, and the man who may have committed those acts cannot be trusted to investigate himself,” said Nadler, D-N.Y.
Each of the FBI’s violations cited in the reports copied to Gonzales was serious enough to require notification of the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board, which helps police the government’s surveillance activities, the Post reported.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pointed out what he said was another inconsistency: the Justice Department’s accounting of when Gonzales became aware of the FBI’s abuses of the National Security Letters — which allow agents to secretly obtain private information on ordinary Americans in terrorism investigations.
According to the department, Gonzales became aware of the abuses prior to March 9 this year from a report by Justice’s inspector general on that date documenting them. Gonzales had been receiving reports of FBI abuses in terrorism investigations for months before that, according to the Post.
Leahy said the contradictions warrant further inquiry and he would be asking Gonzales about them before the attorney general’s scheduled testimony before Leahy’s committee July 24.
“It appears the attorney general also failed to disclose the truth about when he first knew of widespread abuses by the FBI of National Security Letters,” Leahy said.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes Jordan contributed to this report.