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House committee hears testimony on FBI phone records collection

[JURIST] US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] Inspector General Glenn Fine [official profile] and FBI [official website] General Counsel Valerie Caproni [official profile] testified [materials] Thursday before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties [official website] regarding governmental abuse of National Security Letters (NSLs) [CRS backgrounder, PDF; FBI backgrounder]. Committee members were angered by the FBI's use of "exigent letters," which lack any statutory authority, as a means by which to circumvent proper NSL protocol. Their appearance follows the January release of a DOJ report [text, PDF] that documented hundreds of instances of FBI officials employing the tactic to improperly gain access to personal records [JURIST report]. House Judiciary Chair John Conyers (D-MI) [official website] condemned [press release] the practice, saying:

Today's hearing showed that the FBI broke the law on telephone records privacy and the General Counsel's Office, headed by Valerie Caproni, sanctioned it and must face consequences. I call upon FBI Director Mueller to take immediate action to punish those who violated the rules, including firing them from the agency. This must include the FBI Office of General Counsel, headed by Valerie Caproni, which the IG testified today had "approved [the] continued use" of exigent letters and "provided legal advice that was inconsistent with" federal law.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] expressed similar disappointment [press release] for what it called "blatant and systematic abuse," and pushed for swift reform.

Fine previously testified [JURIST report] before the Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] in September that the FBI had significantly understated [statement, PDF] the number of NSL requests from 2003 to 2006. Fine noted that FBI officials had "devoted significant time, energy, and resources to correcting its errors," but that it was "too early to definitively state whether the FBI's efforts have eliminated the problems." The FBI began the practice of allowing supervisors to authorize collection of phone records on the basis of emergency situations shortly after the Patriot Act [JURIST news archive] was passed in October 2001. The collection of telephone records on the basis of non-existent emergencies is a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) [text].

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