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Audit: FBI's Patriot Act snooping broke rules

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NEW: House committee to hold hearings on FBI spying violations
NEW: "I am the person accountable," FBI director says
NEW: White House expresses "serious concern" over issues raised
• Rules on when and how FBI could access private information violated
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI is guilty of "serious misuse" of the power to secretly obtain private information under the Patriot Act, a government audit said Friday.

The Justice Department's inspector general looked at the FBI's use of national security letters, in which agents demand personal and business information about individuals -- such as financial, phone, and Internet records -- without court orders.

The audit found the letters were issued without proper authority, cited incorrect statutes or obtained information they weren't supposed to.

As many as 22 percent of national security letters were not recorded, the audit said.

"We concluded that many of the problems we identified constituted serious misuse of the FBI's national security letter authorities," Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in the report.

The audit said there were no indications that the FBI's use of the letters "constituted criminal misconduct."

The audit sparked a new stage in the ongoing battle over the Patriot Act, which was put into place after the September 11 attacks. Critics have slammed some of its provisions for intruding on civil liberties. The American Civil Liberties Union called on Congress to "act immediately to repeal these dangerous Patriot Act provisions."

The FBI has made as many as 56,000 requests a year for information using the letters since the Patriot Act was passed in October 2001, the audit found.

A single letter can contain multiple information requests, and multiple letters may target one individual.

The audit found that in 2004 and 2005, more than half of the targets of the national security letters were U.S. citizens.

Letter used to track phone calls, FBI says

FBI Director Robert Mueller said Friday that 90 percent of the letters are used to access phone records in helping to track U.S. contacts with suspected terrorists overseas.

Mueller took responsibility for the FBI's problems and said steps had been taken to eliminate them.

"I am the person responsible, I am the person accountable, and I am committed to ensuring that we correct these deficiencies and live up to these responsibilities," he said.

President Bush learned of the report about a week ago, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. Earlier this week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Mueller briefed Bush on its key findings, as well as measures the Justice Department and the FBI were proposing in response, she said.

Bush was "relieved to learn the inspector general found no instances of intentional misconduct," Perino said, but expressed "significant concern over the seriousness of the issues."

The inspector general's review identified "26 possible intelligence violations" between 2003 and 2005, 19 of which the FBI reported to the president's Intelligence Oversight Board, the audit said.

Of the 26, "22 were the result of FBI errors, while four were caused by mistakes made by recipients'' of the letters, it said.

The audit also found problems with "exigent letters," which are supposed to be used only in emergencies when time may not permit the national security letter procedure to be followed.

The audit found exigent letters were not used in emergencies and gave the agency access to telephone records it should not have had.

Mueller said Friday the FBI stopped using exigent letters in May 2006 after the practice was revealed. He said they were used to obtain information the FBI was entitled to but should have gained in other ways.

Use of letters grew after 9/11 attacks

Most of the 200-page report focuses on the national security letters, the use of which it says has undergone a "dramatic increase" since the Patriot Act was put into law after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The letters existed before the attacks, but the Patriot Act allowed them to be used on a broader scale to seek more information.

The American Civil Liberties Union called on Congress to "act immediately to repeal these dangerous Patriot Act provisions."

Gonzales wrote Fine praising the report and saying he has asked the Justice Department's National Security Division and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Office to work with the FBI in making changes.

"They will report to me regularly on their progress," Gonzales said. "In addition, I ask that you report to me in four months on the implementation of your recommendations."

Mueller said the national security letters are indispensable in the the war on terror, citing the recent arrest on espionage charges of a former U.S. Navy sailor in Arizona as one instance where the letters were needed.

The FBI director said no one has suffered harm from the errors made in use of the letters.

On Capitol Hill, the audit brought calls for better oversight and possibly changes in the law.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced he will hold "briefings and hearings to understand the scope of these problems and to ensure corrective action has been taken."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said the Patriot Act may have to be changed and the FBI's power curtailed because "they appear not to be able to know how to use it."

"You cannot have people act as free agents on something where they are going to be delving into your privacy," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said. "We all want to stop terrorists. We all want to stop criminals. But the FBI work for us, the American people, not the other way around."

CNN's Kelli Arena and Elaine Quijano contributed to this report.


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