The FBI underreported its use of the USA Patriot Act to force businesses to turn over customer information in suspected terrorism cases, according to a Justice Department audit.
One government official familiar with the report said shoddy bookkeeping and records management led to the problems. The FBI agents appeared to be overwhelmed by the volume of demands for information over a two-year period, the official said.
"They lost track," said the official who like others interviewed late Thursday spoke on condition of anonymity because the report was not being released until Friday.
The FBI in 2005 reported to Congress that its agents had delivered a total of 9,254 national security letters seeking e-mail, telephone or financial information on 3,501 U.S. citizens and legal residents over the previous two years.
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine's report says that number was underreported by 20 percent, according to the officials.
Fine conducted the audit as required by Congress and over the objections of the Bush administration.
It was unclear late Thursday whether the omissions could be considered a criminal offense. One government official who read the report said it concluded the problems appeared to be unintentional and that FBI agents would probably face administrative sanctions instead of criminal charges.
The FBI has taken steps to correct some of the problems, the official said.
The Justice Department, already facing congressional criticism over its firing of eight U.S. attorneys, began notifying lawmakers of the audit's damning contents late Thursday. Spokesmen at the Justice Department and FBI declined to comment on the findings.
Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees the FBI, called the reported findings "a profoundly disturbing breach of public trust."
"Somebody has a lot of explaining to do," said Schumer, D-N.Y.
Fine's audit also says the FBI failed to send follow-up subpoenas to telecommunications companies that were told to expect them, the officials said.
Those cases involved so-called exigent letters to alert the companies that subpoenas would be issued shortly to gather more information, the officials said. But in many examples, the subpoenas were never sent, the officials said.
The FBI has since caught up with those omissions, either with national security letters or subpoenas, one official said.
National security letters have been the subject of legal battles in two federal courts because recipients were barred from telling anyone about them.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Bush administration over what the ACLU described as the security letter's gag on free speech.
A federal appeals judge in New York warned in May that government's ability to force companies to turn over information about its customers and keep quiet about it was probably unconstitutional.
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