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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The FBI abused its power by illegally or improperly obtaining telephone, financial and other secret records in investigations of terrorism or espionage suspects, the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general said on Friday.
A report by Inspector General Glenn Fine's office sharply criticized the FBI for how, without a court order, it demanded and received records such as customer information from telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks and credit card firms.
"We believe the improper or illegal uses we found involve serious misuses of national security letter authorities," Fine said in releasing the report.
National security letters allow the FBI to compel the release of private information without getting authority from a judge or grand jury. The FBI can get the records but not the content of communications, Justice Department officials said.
Democrats in Congress vowed to investigate the findings in the report, which came as they stepped up criticism of President George W. Bush's administration for weakening protections on civil liberties as part of its war on terrorism.
FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged at a news conference that the report found serious deficiencies.
"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, noting the FBI is sworn to uphold privacy protections and civil liberties.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told a privacy rights group that he was upset when learned the FBI did not have sufficient controls, did not provide adequate training and failed to follow its own policies.
"Although I believe the kinds of errors we saw here were due to questionable judgment or lack of attention, not intentional wrongdoing, I want to be very clear: there is no excuse for the mistakes that have been made and we are going to make things right as quickly as possible," Gonzales said.
The use of national security letters has grown dramatically, mainly as a result of powers granted to the FBI under the USA Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism law that Congress approved after the September 11 attacks.
In investigating abuses of authority, the report found 26 possible violations, including requesting information without adequate authorization, improper requests under the law and unauthorized collection of telephone or e-mail records.
Of the 26 cases, 22 were the result of FBI errors and four were caused by mistakes by those who received the request for the information, the report said.
In reviewing 77 investigative files in FBI field offices, the report found that 17 of them, or 22 percent, contained one or more possible violations not identified by the field office or reported to FBI headquarters as required.
In another finding, the report identified many cases of the FBI improperly obtaining telephone toll billing records and subscriber information from three telephone companies.
The report did not find any indication of intentional criminal misconduct. Mueller said disciplinary actions could be taken against FBI employees.
Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, vowed to work with other senators to make sure the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees investigate promptly.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, also vowed oversight hearings.
"The average American can take away the fact that you have FBI officers who felt that they were above the law," he said.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro