Given the power to snoop on their citizens, governments will snoop. Given limits on snooping, governments will inevitably exceed them, barring oversight by an independent watchdog. That’s just the way governments work.
The USA Patriot Act greatly expanded the use of national-security letters, administrative subpoenas that do not need a judge’s approval, that allow government agents to collect, generally secretly, extensive amounts of personal information — bank and credit records, Internet use, telephone records.
Now the FBI has acknowledged that in 2006 its agents improperly accessed the records of thousands of Americans, often without official authorization, and that its agents collected more information than they were allowed. And the FBI underreported the number of national-security letters it issued by 4,600, a pretty glaring undercount.
Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but this is the fourth straight year this has happened. And it’s not like there’s just a small error rate in issuing the letters. In 2005, the Justice Department’s inspector general found more than 1,000 violations within 19,000 requests for the subpoenas.
There may be nothing sinister in this improper over-gathering of personal information. The inspector general blames human error and poor record keeping, and the bureau says part of the problem was businesses turning over more personal information than was requested.
Congress has toyed with setting up some type of independent oversight of national-security letters. The Bush administration is against it. But if these administrative subpoenas are every bit the effective antiterrorism tool the administration claims, then there should be no objection to some impartial authority confirming it.