POLITICS
09/16/2013 09:00 pm ET

ACLU: James Comey, New FBI Director, Must End 'Unchecked Abuse Of Authority'

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WASHINGTON -- FBI Director James Comey should reverse sweeping government surveillance practices begun since the Sept. 11 attacks that encroach on civilians' constitutional rights, the American Civil Liberties Union asserted in a report.

"FBI abuse of power must be met with efforts of reform, just as much now as in the days of J. Edgar Hoover," the report, to be issued on Tuesday, said. It recommended that the president, the attorney general and Congress tighten surveillance guidelines and exercise vigorous oversight.

Despite its role as the agency requesting phone call records on every American on behalf of the National Security Agency, and aggressive investigations of American Muslim communities, there is little evidence that all the FBI's post-Sept. 11 powers have made the country safer, the report said. Terrorists like the Boston bombers were still able to slip through holes in government surveillance.

The civil liberties group's report arrives as Comey enters his first month as FBI director, replacing Robert Mueller, who headed the bureau for 12 years and oversaw its shift toward counterterrorism.

Under Mueller, the report argued, the FBI extended its domestic intelligence and law enforcement powers until it had "unprecedented power and international reach." With that expansion has come wide-ranging civil liberties violations, from massive no-fly lists to the phone records collection program made infamous by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the report argued.

The ACLU report cited those programs, as well as the use of national security letters to demand private information without a warrant, spying on political activists, mapping Muslim and other ethnic communities, and using data mining to attempt to locate terrorists.

The FBI repeatedly misled Congress and the public about the reach of its programs, the report claimed, making oversight difficult.

Comey, formerly the deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, is just beginning to make his mark. Under the Bush administration, he resisted an effort to expand warrantless wiretapping of emails. But many civil liberties groups greeted his appointment as FBI director by President Barack Obama with ambivalence, because he approved other Bush-era programs.

"Obviously Mr. Comey deserves commendation for having stood up to the worst of the Bush administration's abuses, but a lot of the programs that Americans are just now -- because of the Snowden leaks -- getting to see are patently over-broad, and unnecessarily overboard," said Mike German, the ACLU policy counsel and former FBI agent who wrote the report.

"So knowing that those programs had their origin in the time that Comey was serving at the Department of Justice means that a lot of troubling questions remain," German said.

Comey left the Bush administration in 2005, but during his confirmation hearings in July he argued that the FBI operates under "a wide variety of constraints" that make safeguards against abuse "very effective."

German said he knows from his time as an FBI agent that the FBI director can exert great influence within the bureau -- but that pressure must also come from outside it to make temporary policy changes permanent.

"We've been very encouraged by the congressional response to the Snowden leaks," said German. "Now that they can see the actual documents and understand the broad scope of these programs, they've had enough and are demanding reform."

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