FBI Uses Patriot Act To Obtain Business Records Of U.S. Citizens

The FBI has dramatically increased its use of a controversial provision of the Patriot Act to secretly obtain a vast store of business records of U.S. citizens under President Barack Obama.

Remember when we were told that the scary powers of the Patriot Act would only be used against terrorists? Good times! Imagine an open-ended, secret audit of your business finances -- just in case. Just as we saw RICO abused by the FBI in the 80s and 90s, now they're using the Patriot Act to sidestep the legal process for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism. Michael Isokoff:

The FBI has dramatically increased its use of a controversial provision of the Patriot Act to secretly obtain a vast store of business records of U.S. citizens under President Barack Obama, according to recent Justice Department reports to Congress. The bureau filed 212 requests for such data to a national security court last year – a 1,000-percent increase from the number of such requests four years earlier, the reports show.

The FBI’s increased use of the Patriot Act’s “business records” provision — and the wide ranging scope of its requests -- is getting new scrutiny in light of last week’s disclosure that that the provision was used to obtain a top-secret national security order requiring telecommunications companies to turn over records of millions of telephone calls.

Taken together, experts say, those revelations show the government has broadly interpreted the Patriot Act provision as enabling it to collect data not just on specific individuals, but on millions of Americans with no suspected terrorist connections. And it shows that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court accepted that broad interpretation of the law.

“That they were using this (provision) to do mass collection of data is definitely the biggest surprise,” said Robert Chesney, a top national security lawyer at the University of Texas Law School. “Most people who followed this closely were not aware they were doing this. We’ve gone from producing records for a particular investigation to the production of all records for a massive pre-collection database. It’s incredibly sweeping.”

The Justice Department and FBI did not respond to requests for comment. But in a recent interview with NBC News, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed the idea that the records were being used to spy on innocent Americans. “The notion that we’re trolling through everyone’s emails and voyeuristically reading them, or listening to everyone’s phone calls is, on its face, absurd,” he said. “We couldn’t do that even if we wanted to.”

But little-noticed statements by FBI Director Robert Mueller in recent years – as well as interviews with former senior law enforcement officials – hint at what Chesney calls a largely unnoticed “sea change” in the way the U.S. government collects data for terrorism and other national security investigations.

The Patriot Act provision, known as Section 215, allows the FBI to require the production of business records and any other “tangible things” -- including “books, records, papers, documents and other items,” for an authorized terrorism or foreign intelligence investigation. The Patriot Act was a broad expansion of law enforcement powers enacted by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In addition to Section 215, other provisions expanded the FBI’s power to issue so-called “national security letters,” requiring individuals and business to turn over a more limited set of records without any court order at all.

In contrast to standard grand jury subpoenas, material obtained under both Section 215 orders and national security letters must be turned over under so-called “gag orders” that forbid the business or institution that receives the order from notifying its customers or publicly referring to the matter.

From the earliest days of the Patriot Act, Section 215 was among the most hotly disputed of its provisions. Critics charged the language – “tangible things” -- was so broad that it would even permit the FBI to obtain library and bookstore records to inspect what citizens were reading.

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