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Lawmakers intended to get to the bottom of a number of issues facing the FBI when they invited the bureau's director to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. They wanted to grill Robert Mueller about new investigative powers he's seeking, and they wanted details on the FBI's recent investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks. But as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, Mueller was able to parry their every thrust at yesterday's hearing.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The hearing began with an edgy exchange between committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan and Director Mueller.
Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, House Judiciary Committee): How come we can't get some straight answers on the questions that I write you, I ask you, I give you in person? What is this?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Mueller said he was trying to be responsive. He said he thought he had a good relationship with the committee. Conyers tried again.
Representative CONYERS: Director Mueller, we have a very good relationship. We just don't get anything. You don't give us anything.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Conyers had a point. Mueller spent several hours before the committee, but only provided 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, but instead Mueller focused on why they were needed.
Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (Director, FBI): The bureau needs to be more proactive. You have to prevent a September 11. And we have to build up our intelligence. And in doing so, we have to understand that we need all the tools, the ones that we use on the criminal side, to be applicable on the national security side.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Mueller said that under the current rules, if the bureau received word that there was drug trafficking going on in a bar, they could send an agent for pretext interviews and start surveillance. But, he said, if the allegation was the recruiting of suicide bombers...
Mr. MUELLER: We would be precluded by the National Security Guidelines from conducting a surveillance, recruiting and tasking sources, or doing a pretext interview. We would be limited to going in there and saying, OK, I'm the FBI, is there any illegal activity happening here? And that's the contradiction between the two sets of guidelines.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Civil liberties groups are concerned that the new powers will give the FBI too much latitude. They worry that it will lead to some sort of a racial profiling or will allow the FBI to begin an investigation based on some sort of hypothetical threat. Lawmakers also quizzed Mueller about the anthrax case. Specifically they questioned 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 though the mail. Lawmakers had been calling for an independent review of the case. It was on the anthrax issue that Mueller provided one of the few revelations of the day. He said the FBI was seeking an independent review of the scientific evidence in the case.
Mr. MUELLER: Because of the importance of science to this particular case and to perhaps cases in the future, we have initiated discussions with the National Academy of Sciences to undertake an independent review of the scientific approach used during the investigation.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Mueller stopped short of saying the FBI would cooperate with an independent review of the entire case. And 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. That's three more than the bureau said it had opened in July. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.
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