FBI Chief Defends Domestic Surveillance

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The two domestic surveillance programs leaked to the media last week are in line with the Constitution and federal law, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
     Mueller was the only witness at the Committee’s FBI oversight hearing, fielding tough questions from both sides of the aisle on domestic surveillance, drone strikes, the Internal Revenue Service’s infatuation with the Tea Party, the investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen, AP wiretaps and the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi.
     But the issue of the day was last week’s leak that revealed two secret surveillance programs that farm metadata from U.S. citizens through telephone and email records.
     After laying out the variety of threats that the FBI faces, Mueller addressed the programs leaked by 29-year-old NSA-contracted analyst Edward Snowden.
     “These programs have been conducted consistent with the Constitution and the laws of the United States,” Mueller said.
     One of the programs leaked by Snowden, who is reportedly now on the lam in Hong Kong, involves the government’s collection of metadata from domestic phone records. Mueller told congressmen Thursday that the government cannot spy on the content of calls, but it can look at incoming and outgoing phone numbers, the length of calls and the place of origin for the numbers.
     That information, Mueller noted, could have been useful had it been available to the FBI prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Mueller said an al-Qaida safe house in the United States had taken calls from Yemen prior to the attacks.
     “We recognize that the American public expects the FBI and our intelligence community partners to respect privacy,” Mueller said. “The programs have been carried out with extensive oversight from courts, independent inspectors general and Congress.”
     The second program, known as PRISM, monitors Internet use.
     Mueller said the leaks give terrorists insight into our surveillance programs and cause “significant harm” to national security. He added that Snowden is under investigation, but did not provide any details.
     In his opening statement, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said he fears “that we’re becoming a surveillance state.”
     Conyers expressed concerns that collecting metadata is “not necessary nor does it serve a legitimate legal service.” He also announced a plan to introduce a bill addressing surveillance programs Friday.
     Of particular concern for Democrats was the secretive nature of the agency as it collects the information. According to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the director of the FBI can apply for an order to produce materials that assist in an investigation into international terrorism allegations. The law does not require the agency to disclose its reasons after obtaining the order.
     Democrats noted the increasingly blurred line between international terrorism and national security threats, a concern that they believe can lead to the government using surveillance data for criminal investigations, which Mueller acknowledged the government is not authorized to do.
     Republicans questioned Mueller hard on their own political talking points.
     Rep. John Coble asked Mueller about the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, which killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. Coble criticized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on what he called a possible cover-up.
     “I’m not saving it’s a cover-up, but it’s got the taste of a cover-up,” Coble said. “It hangs in my craw. As my great-granddaddy used to say, it makes my coffee tastes bad in the morning.”
     Though Mueller said subsequent investigations into the attack have turned up some successes, he would not speak in specifics at a public hearing.
     The director was also questioned fiercely by Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, who was outraged over the bureau’s failure to pin Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a dangerous radical.
     Gohmert said this could have been done by getting information from Russia.
     Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, meanwhile bashed the FBI’s handling of its investigation into two IRS agents who were allegedly motivated by politics to audit Tea Party groups.
     Jordan was furious that Mueller could not name the lead investigator on the case.
     “This has been the biggest story in the country, and you’re telling me you can’t even name the lead investigator,” Jordan said.
     Mueller promised to answer the question in writing after the hearing.
     The normally animated Darryl Issa, R-Calif., pressed Mueller on the FBI’s investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen, whom Mueller says was under investigation though the bureau had no plans of prosecuting him.
     A 2010 FBI affidavit used to obtain a search warrant for Rosen’s personal Gmail account revealed Rosen’s source regarding classified information about North Korea’s nuclear program.
     Issa and other Republicans said that the investigation presents a chill on the First Amendment. Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., asked how the bureau could investigate someone without intending to prosecute them.
     Mueller said it’s common to investigate subjects without the intention of prosecution.
     Members of both parties questioned Mueller on the effects that sequestration cuts will have on the agency.
     Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, was disappointed to hear Mueller say that the budge cuts would lead the bureau to tighten its civil rights department.
     Mueller added that international terrorism, domestic extremist and cyber crime take priority for an agency that lost $550 million from its budget in 2013.
     Mueller, who was appointed to his post just one week before the Sept. 11 attacks, is serving his final months as director of the FBI; President Barack Obama appointed James Comey to take the helm last month.
     Throughout the three-plus hour hearing, both parties commended Mueller on his service.

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