WASHINGTON (CNN) - An upcoming report will detail more problems with the way the FBI used an investigative tool called national security letters (NSLs), FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
The Justice Department's inspector general is expected to soon issue an audit detailing how the bureau used NSLs in 2006. Mueller told the panel the new report will show problems similar to ones detailed in an inspector general audit released last March covering the years 2003-2005.
The previous report documented problems with improper requests and unauthorized collection of phone and e-mail records, and indicated the FBI did not report all possible violations of procedures in the use of NSLs once officials became aware of them as required by law.
National security letters are sent to businesses that hold financial, phone and Internet records requesting they turn them over without a court order.
In an apparent effort to deflect criticism, Mueller volunteered the information about the upcoming audit in his opening statement to the committee and emphasized the time frame covers a period before the FBI enacted reforms in the use of the letters.
"We have instituted new procedures and internal oversight mechanisms to ensure that we as an organization minimize the chance of future lapses," he told the committee.
None of the senators asked Mueller for any details concerning the upcoming report. However, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., raised the topic in his opening statement.
"Everybody wants to stop terrorists. But we also, though, as Americans, we believe in our privacy rights and we want those protected," he said.
After the release of the report last year, the FBI was severely criticized for poor oversight of this investigative tool and failing to show enough of a commitment to protecting civil liberties.
"New guidelines have been introduced, but last year's IG report makes clear that internal guidelines are meaningless to the FBI," said Michael German, a national security counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's becoming more and more obvious that outside oversight is essential since the bureau's learning curve is sadly unimpressive. Instituting judicial oversight would guarantee that someone would be looking over the shoulder of agents using a tool as invasive as an NSL."
Among the FBI reforms put in place last year are: creation of a new Office of Integrity and Compliance to identify areas of potential risk; regular audits tracking the use of NSLs; a new, detailed tracking database; and the distribution of new guidelines to agents clearly laying out the use of the letters.
"We will continue our vigilance in this area," Mueller vowed. "We are committed to ensuring that we not only get this right but maintain the vital
trust of the American people."
– CNN's Kevin Bohn