FBI Director Faces Critics on Senate Panel

FBI Director Robert Mueller's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee features a barrage of questions about the misuse of terrorist surveillance laws and a failure to account for all the FBI's laptops and weapons.

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And this is not a good time to be representing the Department of Justice on Capitol Hill. Congress is upset about a range of scandals. Yesterday it fell to FBI Director Robert Mueller to explain them to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: Some senators tried listing all of the FBI's current scandals: illegal requests for Americans' phone and e-mail records, agents giving bad information to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, lapses in computer and weapon security. Ranking Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania took a more direct route.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): The question arises as to whether any director can handle this job, and the further question arises as to whether the bureau itself can handle the job.

SHAPIRO: In other words, maybe all these scandals are not the result of bad management or bad FBI agents. Maybe the FBI should just have a lot less responsibility. Specter suggested creating a new agency that would handle domestic spying, leaving the FBI to focus only on law enforcement.

That put director Robert Mueller in the unenviable position of arguing that the scandals unfolded not because of any structural problems but because of his poor management.

Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation): I am responsible for those shortcomings, and I am also responsible for taking the steps to insure that they do not happen again.

SHAPIRO: The biggest of those scandals deals with national security letters, demands for phone, e-mail and business records. According to the Justice Department's inspector general, the FBI illegally obtained tens of thousands of Americans' records using national security letters.

The bureau underreported its activities to Congress, kept information it wasn't allowed to have, and filed emergency letters in cases that were not emergencies. Committee chairman Patrick Leahy said maybe it's time to undo the part of the Patriot Act that gave the FBI more power to use these letters.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): We set up all these procedures to help you but we assume somebody's going to follow the rules.

SHAPIRO: Mueller said Congress doesn't need to change the law. He's got it under control.

Mr. MUELLER: These deficiencies are being addressed and I welcome the committee's input and suggestions for additional improvements to our internal controls.

SHAPIRO: It didn't help Mueller that on the day of his testimony the Washington Post reported that FBI agents have been using inaccurate data to get warrants to spy on Americans. Mueller explained how that could happen.

Mr. MUELLER: The affidavits were exceptionally long, you can have thousands of facts in there, and mistakes may be made, although we do our level best to assure that there is no mistake in an affidavit.

SHAPIRO: Specter said he's not impressed by the assertion that there are thousands of facts.

Sen. SPECTER: That's your job, that's the FBI agent's job. Your agents are supposed to be accurate on the facts. And if they're wrong on the facts, they're subjecting someone to an invasion of privacy.

SHAPIRO: U.S. attorneys are not part of director Mueller's portfolio. That didn't stop senators from asking him about the scandal in which eight U.S. attorneys were fired. The panel focused on Carol Lam, the San Diego U.S. attorney who oversaw a major congressional corruption investigation until she was dismissed last December.

A San Diego newspaper quoted the city's top FBI agent as saying that Lam's dismissal would harm ongoing investigations. Specter read that quote and asked...

Sen. SPECTER: Director Mueller, is it true that Lam's continued employment as a U.S. attorney was crucial to the success of multiple ongoing investigations?

Mr. MUELLER: I don't believe that to be the case.

SHAPIRO: So the senator asked...

Sen. SPECTER: In what way did you follow up and what did it disclose?

Mr. MUELLER: Well, my understanding is that the - our chief out there believes he was misquoted but that our investigations were continuing without any diminishment.

SHAPIRO: Misquoted is not what California Democrat Dianne Feinstein heard.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): We followed up and I had my chief counsel call them to verify what they said. And they said yes, they said it, but they also said they had been warned to say no more. Are you aware that they had been warned to say no more?

Mr. MUELLER: Yes, I am.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: And why would that be?

Mr. MUELLER: Because I do not think it's appropriate for us to comment on personnel decisions that are made by the Department of Justice.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow the committee is scheduled to hear from the attorney general's former chief of staff, who will be able to shed much more light on the firings.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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