ACLU Urges Senate: Ask FBI the Tough Questions

March 5, 2008 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – As the Senate Judiciary Committee was set to question FBI Director Robert Mueller III today, the American Civil Liberties Union urged the committee to ask Director Mueller the tough questions about the bureau’s civil liberties record.

Last year the Inspector General (IG) of the FBI released a report outlining the Bureau’s rampant misuse of the National Security Letter (NSL) statute, whose authorities were expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act. The report revealed widespread abuse of the statute – which allows for the collection of personal information without court approval and included a provision that allowed them to gag recipients (which was later found unconstitutional).The ACLU is asking Congress to thoroughly question Director Mueller on what changes have been implemented since the report was released, and to uncover the status of the most recent NSL report that was due in December of 2007 but has yet to appear.

Also of concern is the rapidly growing Terrorist Screening Center watchlist which has grown to include over 920,000 names and, at its current rate of growth, will likely hit one million this summer. An IG report on that watchlist found that it is still riddled with errors and inaccuracies, yet the FBI maintains that it is a useful and effective tool in fighting terrorism. Since many Americans share the names of those on the watchlist – including Judiciary Committee member Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) – the ACLU is asking the FBI to reconsider its methods for adding to and maintaining the list.

“The FBI must not only be made accountable for its abuse of the NSL statute, there must be proper safeguards put into place to prevent future abuse,” said Michael German, ACLU National Security Policy Counsel and former FBI Agent. “The bureau’s approach to counter-terrorism is seriously in question. The terrorist watchlist is quite literally growing out of control. How effective can a watchlist be when it exponentially increases in size every year?”

The ACLU also has a number of concerns with the FBI’s name check system. Because agents have the discretion to enter names of innocent people, including victims and witnesses of crimes, the searches conducted within the FBI’s “reference” files have resulted in extreme and unfair delays in processing important immigration documents. Since the names entered have little to no information attached to them, innocent people will come up as “hits” and have their paperwork delayed as a result. Complicating matters, the FBI also conducts name checks for other purposes, including security clearances for persons attending White House social events and people buying guns. The ACLU is urging the FBI to modernize its system and to institute guidelines for entering names into the database to avoid long delays in the future.

“Many people have been waiting years for their naturalization applications to be approved,” said Joanne Lin, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Because of bureaucratic backlogs and disorganization at the FBI, they remain in limbo. Furthermore, many of them could have voted in recent primaries but for the fact that the government is sitting on their naturalization applications. Congress should push the FBI to clean up its act so that those who wish to become U.S. citizens may do so in a fair and timely manner.”

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