WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The FBI improperly obtained credit reports and other information on individuals through errors in using its power to investigate terrorism or espionage suspects, the Washington Post reported, citing a U.S. Justice Department audit.
The findings prompted an "incensed" Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to order the FBI to place new safeguards over its use of so-called national-security letters to secretly demand telephone, e-mail and financial records, the Post said in its Friday edition.
"These past mistakes will not be tolerated," Gonzales spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos was quoted as telling the Post. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.
National-security letters allow the FBI to compel the release of private information such as communications or financial records without getting authority from a judge or grand jury. Their use has grown exponentially since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Post said.
Critics have accused President George W. Bush's administration of weakening civil liberties protections in its war on terrorism.
The congressionally mandated audit found that in 2005 alone, the FBI issued more than 19,000 national security letters amounting to 47,000 separate requests for information, the Post said.
In their sampling of 293 letters, investigators found that 22 errors were possible violations of department rules and some were potential violations of law, the Post reported, citing officials with access to the audit.
The FBI identified 26 potential violations in other cases in the audit, which was limited to 77 case files in four FBI field offices, the Post said. It said officials believe the 48 known problems may be the tip of the iceberg in a "shoddy" internal oversight system, but that the problems were not deliberate.
In at least two cases cited by the newspaper, the investigators found that the FBI obtained full credit reports whereas the security letters could only be used to obtain summary information.
In other cases, telephone companies, banks or Internet providers responded with detailed personal information about customers that the letters do not permit to be released, the article said.
A Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity told the paper that Gonzales learned of the findings three weeks ago. He "was incensed when he was told the contents of the report," the official was quoted as saying.