By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III urged lawmakers yesterday to renew intelligence-gathering measures in the USA Patriot Act that are set to expire in December, calling them "exceptional" tools to help protect national security.
The law, passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, created divisions between proponents, who said it was necessary to deter terrorism, and privacy advocates warning that it tramples on Americans' civil liberties. Portions of the law are up for reauthorization this year.
Mueller told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee he hopes that the reauthorization of two provisions would be far less controversial than in previous years. One of those provisions, which helps authorities secure access to business records, "has been exceptionally helpful in our national security investigations," he said.
In response to a question from Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Mueller said that his agents had used the provision about 220 times between 2004 and 2007. Data for last year were not yet available, he said.
The measure allows investigators probing terrorism to seek a suspect's records from third parties such as financial services and travel and telephone companies without notifying the suspect. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the provision, saying it violates the First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens.
Another provision, permitting roving wiretaps of terrorism suspects, was used 147 times and has helped eliminate "an awful lot of paperwork," Mueller said. In the past, authorities had to seek court approval for each electronic device carried by a suspect, from a cellphone and a BlackBerry to a home computer. But under the provision, one warrant can cover all of those machines.
The ACLU issued a report this month describing "widespread abuse" of government authority under the Patriot Act.
"The Patriot Act has been disastrous for Americans' rights," said Caroline Frederickson, the director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "Congress should use this year's Patriot Act reauthorization as an opportunity to reexamine all of our surveillance laws."
Agents' use of the Patriot Act and other sensitive investigative tools has been a source of friction between FBI officials and Democratic lawmakers.
Mueller said he has not had a chance to meet with new Justice Department or White House officials regarding their views on the Patriot Act. But at the Senate confirmation hearing for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in January, Mueller expressed at least moderate support for renewing the provisions that will sunset in December.
David Kris, an expert on intelligence laws, won unanimous Senate confirmation yesterday as the new leader of the Justice Department's National Security Division. He will play an important role in the Patriot Act reauthorization and in supervising the FBI's national security operations.
"It is important that [Congress] examine more specifics," Cardin told the FBI director. "We want to make sure you have the tools that you need and that you have appropriate oversight. There may need to be modifications . . . a fine-tuning of these provisions to make sure they are effective and used as intended by Congress."