WASHINGTON — FBI Director Robert Mueller took responsibility Friday for a watchdog's findings that the bureau had abused its expanded, post-Sept. 11 powers to secretly obtain Americans' bank, phone, credit and e-mail records in counterterrorism investigations.
The report by the Justice Department's inspector general said the FBI itself had identified 26 intelligence violations and that his auditors found many other privacy infringements in reviewing some of the 143,074 National Security Letters the bureau issued between 2003 and 2005. The letters give the FBI power to obtain private business and personal records without court review.
In more than 700 cases, the investigators found, the bureau issued emergency or "exigent" letters demanding telephone records and promising that subpoenas would follow, but none did. The FBI also underreported its use of the National Security Letters to Congress, the report said.
The report prompted an outpouring of harsh criticism from Congress, with some leading lawmakers joining civil libertarians in calling for a rollback of the FBI's authority under the Patriot Act. It also was another major embarrassment for the Bush administration and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over their failure to safeguard civil rights in hunting and interrogating terrorists, even as Gonzales tries to quell a furor surrounding the recent firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
"I am the person responsible. I am the person accountable," Mueller told a news briefing, a solemn expression on his face. Praising Inspector General Glenn Fine for "an excellent report," Mueller said he's ordered an inquiry to determine whether any employees should be disciplined.
Mueller stressed that the inspector general's report identified no intentional violations, that the National Security Letters were an "absolutely essential" tool in counterterrorism investigations and that many of the report's recommendations were being implemented.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said House Democrats would honor their duty to defend the Constitution "by investigating the disturbing" disclosures.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Congress may need to strip the FBI of some of its authority "since they appear not to be able to know how to use it."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, said National Security Letters "can do great harm to innocent people" when they're misused. He vowed "to conduct extensive hearings on these findings, their significance and possible remedies." He said the findings might not have come to light if Congress hadn't required the inspector general to monitor the letters' use.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he also would hold briefings and hearings "to understand the scope of these problems and to ensure corrective actions has been taken."
Gonzales, in a speech to a meeting of privacy professionals, said Friday that he and Mueller were upset to learn of the inspector general's findings and that "there is no excuse for the mistakes that have been made."
Afterward, he said: "When people don't do their jobs there needs to be accountability, and so there will be accountability."
While the inspector general found no evidence of criminal intent and blamed many of the mistakes on inadequate training, Gonzales said he "wouldn't rule anything out depending on what is discovered" in the FBI inquiry.
The inspector general found that the bureau failed to:
_Set up an audit system to verify the accuracy of reports to Congress on the use of security letters, whose volume soared from 8,500 in 2000 to as high as 56,000 in 2004. The auditors found records of 22 percent more letters in a sampling of agency case files than were recorded in an FBI database and reported to Congress.
_Order training and education for FBI field offices that were given expanded authority to issue the letters without headquarters' review. The report said many agents were confused or uncertain about the ground rules and that lawyers weren't required to review requests for the letters. That review is now mandatory.
_Require internal controls and more levels of review so that any privacy breach could be spotted immediately and systemic remedies could be implemented.
Mueller said the bureau dropped its use of "exigent letters" for phone records last May.
But the National Security Letters, he said, are "the bread and butter" of FBI counterterrorism investigations, noting that they'd helped agents develop a case against a former sailor accused of transmitting classified information to a suspected terrorist financier and in uncovering a number of cells supporting al Qaida in the United States. A letter can be issued for information if it's believed to be relevant to an investigation.
Suspicious patterns found in phone records can then lead to a request to a special national security court for a warrant to conduct electronic surveillance.
But Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the inspector general's report "confirms our greatest suspicions" and called the findings "the tip of the iceberg."
He noted that the FBI looked at only 293 requests for National Security Letters and, in auditing 77 investigative files, found one or more possible violations in 17 of them, or 17 percent.
Noting that Gonzales has defended warrantless spying as legal, Romero said the attorney general "lacks the credibility, political will and the independence" to remedy the problem.
A separate report by the inspector general on the FBI's ability to obtain library and business records found scant problems.