Patriot Act: Don’t worry about abuse; worry about incompetence

Many people are concerned about the lack of civil liberties protections in the recently reauthorized USA Patriot Act. They say that it leaves the door wide open in many areas for abuse. And there’s some truth to that. But the much more grave concern is that it leaves the door wide open for incompetence.

A report released Friday by the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General reviewed the use of the USA Patriot Act in the case of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, who was wrongfully accused of involvement in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. It found that incompetence, not abuse per se, led to Mayfield’s prosecution.

I first brought you this story back in January, when the inspector general released a summary of the full report (PDF) which came out this Friday. In it, inspector general Glenn A. Fine found that the use of the Patriot Act “amplified the consequences” of the FBI’s misidentification of a latent fingerprint as belonging to Mayfield, when in fact it did not.

The full report provides many new details about the treatment of Mayfield, who was the subject of surveillance and secret searches before he was hurriedly arrested in response to media leaks about the case. FBI examiners had wrongly identified a fingerprint found on a bag of detonators as Mayfield’s and then resisted the Spanish police’s conclusion that the print belonged to someone else, according to the report.

The report acknowledges that there was an “unusual similarity” between the fingerprints, confusing three FBI examiners and a court-appointed expert. But Fine’s office also found that FBI examiners failed to adhere to the bureau’s own rules for identifying latent fingerprints and that the FBI’s “overconfidence” in its own skills prevented it from taking the Spanish police seriously.

The details of the missteps, Fine said in a statement, “are important to understanding the causes of the FBI Laboratory’s misidentification of the fingerprint and the reasons for the changes we recommend in the laboratory’s practices.” — Washington Post

It also said that because Mayfield is a Muslim and an attorney who represented defendants with suspected ties to terrorism, FBI agents were reluctant to consider that they might have made a mistake in their identification. That’s right, bigotry! Let’s just come out and say what really happened.

The report also said that national security letters were used in Mayfield’s case, the exact number having been redacted, and that “several” of them were used to obtain the records of people other than Mayfield.

Don’t you feel safer now that we know we have have bigoted FBI agents who can’t do their jobs properly because of it? Don’t you sleep more soundly knowing that if one of them decides they don’t like you, you could find yourself accused of a crime you didn’t commit? This is the Patriot Act you asked for, in the hands of government, which is incompetent at its best, and malicious at its worst.

One thought on “Patriot Act: Don’t worry about abuse; worry about incompetence

  • October 9, 2007 at 2:00 am

    I have an experience with the FBI as well.

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