Mueller: FBI Needs More Powers To Combat Threats FBI Director Robert Mueller testified Tuesday before a House panel about new investigative powers he seeks for the agency, the investigation into the anthrax attacks and the FBI's efforts to combat mortgage fraud. He says current rules hobble the agency's ability to assess whether someone or something is a threat.
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Mueller: FBI Needs More Powers To Combat Threats

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Mueller: FBI Needs More Powers To Combat Threats

Mueller: FBI Needs More Powers To Combat Threats

Mueller: FBI Needs More Powers To Combat Threats

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/94687783/94699048" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions from the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on Tuesday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions from the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on Tuesday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

FBI Director Robert Mueller defended his agency during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Before the hearing began, lawmakers had said they intended to get to the bottom of a number of issues facing the agency. They wanted to grill the director about new investigative powers he was seeking for the FBI, and they wanted details on the investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Mueller seemed to parry each one of their thrusts.

An edgy exchange between committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and the director set the tone:

"How come we can't get some straight answers on the questions that I write you, that I ask you, that I give you in person?" Conyers asked Mueller after the director read his prepared statement.

Mueller, for his part, said he was trying to be responsive. He said he thought he had a good relationship with the committee. Conyers didn't back down. "Director Mueller, we have a very good relationship," he said. "We just don't get anything. You don't give us anything."

Conyers had a point. Although Mueller spent several hours before the committee, he didn't provide much in the way of revelations. In fact, he provided only the barest of details in response to their questions. Take the issue of the new attorney general's investigative guidelines. Lawmakers wanted assurances that the new powers wouldn't be abused. Mueller focused on why they were needed.

"The bureau needs to be more proactive. We have to prevent a Sept. 11," he said. "And we have to build up our intelligence and in doing so, we need the tools that we have on the criminal side, on the national security side."

He said he thought the bar should be relatively low in terms of initiating an assessment of whether something or someone is a threat. Mueller said the current rules hobble the bureau's ability to do that. Under the current rules, if the bureau received word that drug trafficking was going on in a bar, for example, it could send an agent for pretext interviews and start surveillance.

But, he said, if the allegation were the recruiting of suicide bombers, the FBI "would be precluded by the National Security Guidelines from conducting surveillance, recruiting and tasking sources or doing a pretext interview," he said.

"We would be limited to going in there and saying, 'OK, I am the FBI and is there any illegal activity happening here?' And that is the contradiction between the two sets of guidelines."

Civil liberties groups, for their part, are concerned that new powers, expected to go into effect Oct. 1, would give the FBI too much latitude. They worry the powers could lead to racial profiling or allow the FBI to begin an investigation based on a hypothetical threat. The American Civil Liberties Union says the new guidelines fly in the face of the Fourth Amendment.

Anthrax Case

Lawmakers also quizzed Mueller about the FBI's anthrax case. Specifically, they asked about the strength of the government's evidence against Army researcher Bruce Ivins. Ivins killed himself before the FBI could formally indict him for sending letters filled with anthrax through the mail.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) asked Mueller about some of the holes in the case. He focused on the fact that scientists have long claimed that some of the anthrax sent in those 2001 letters had been coated with silica — something Ivins didn't know how to do. The FBI has said that the silica on the anthrax wasn't put there by whoever sent it but, rather, was something the anthrax had naturally absorbed from the air.

Nadler asked if Mueller knew the level of concentration of the silica found in the anthrax. If it were higher than one-half of 1 percent, he said, scientists told him it couldn't have come from natural absorption. Mueller said he didn't know; he'd get back to Nadler.

Nadler then asked whether Mueller would object to an independent review of the FBI's evidence against Ivins. Mueller said the FBI was seeking an independent review of the scientific evidence in the case. "Because of the importance of the science to this particular case and perhaps cases in the future, we have initiated discussions with the National Academy of Sciences," he said. He said they were working with the academy to "undertake a review of the scientific approach used during the investigation."

Mueller stopped short of saying the FBI would cooperate with an independent review of the entire case.

Finally, with the subprime mortgage crisis casting a pall over everyone, lawmakers asked Mueller about the FBI's effort to battle mortgage fraud. Without identifying specific targets, Mueller said the bureau had opened 24 mortgage-fraud-related cases encompassing the entire spectrum of the industry from mortgage brokers to investment banks. That's three more than the bureau said it had opened in July.

Mueller is scheduled to testify at another oversight hearing, this time before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Wednesday.