WASHINGTON -- The FBI twice disregarded a secret court's constitutional objections and obtained private records for national-security probes, a U.S. inspector reported on Thursday.
The Justice Department's Inspector General made the disclosure in reviews of the FBI's powers to obtain information such as phone records or credit-card data in terrorism probes or other security investigations.
"We questioned the appropriateness of the FBI's actions" in disregarding the court, the Inspector General's office said.
An influential Senate Democrat accused the FBI of "systemic failure" and the American Civil Liberties Union said the reviews demonstrated a need to check the agency's authority.
"The FBI has been given far too much surveillance power," Jameel Jaffer, national security director for the ACLU. "We believe that the abuse continues today."
The FBI said it had implemented measures to correct problems and would "continue to strive for zero errors."
The disclosure comes as Congress considers legislation governing federal powers to conduct electronic surveillance of foreign terrorism targets.
The Inspector General's latest review follows a report last March that said the FBI had misused its powers to obtain business records with private data after its authority was expanded under legislation adopted after the September 11 attacks.
The Inspector General said the FBI in 2006 misused its authority by filing improper requests for records and collecting e-mail data without proper authorization. It said the FBI took significant steps to correct the problems after its report last year.
But implementation of the steps was yet complete, so "it is too early to determine whether these measures will eliminate fully the problems," the Inspector General said.
The report took particular note of two occasions in which a secret court that oversees electronic surveillance rejected FBI requests to obtain records.
The court was concerned that doing so could interfere with rights protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech, religion and association and the right to petition the government.
After the rejections, the FBI used separate authority to get the information without the court's approval, relying on so-called National Security Letters -- even though that authority also had First Amendment guidelines.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the report "outlines more abuses and what appears to be the improper use of National Security Letters for years in a systemic failure throughout the FBI ... Legislative action may be necessary to correct these abuses."
The FBI said in a release that its authorizations to obtain business records were of "indispensable value."
"We are committed to using them in ways that maximize their national security value while providing the highest level of privacy and protection of the civil liberties of those we are sworn to protect," the agency said.
© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.