FBI Director Robert Mueller is testifying before the House Judiciary Committee about counterterrorism practices on Thursday. Lawmakers are expected focus their questions on the National Security Agency's sweeping Internet surveillance program called PRISM, which has prompted an intense debate in Washington over the right balance between privacy rights and national security. The program was revealed by leaker Edward Snowden last week.
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After three hours of testimony, the House Judiciary Committee adjourned its hearing, with promises from Mueller to supply members with more information about the surveillance programs recently revealed, as well as many of the other high profile investigations the FBI is handling.
Mueller, who one observer said held up well under fire, told several members he would meet with them personally to give them fuller answers to their questions.
Many of Mueller's answers were limited because the programs he was testifying about are still classified.
Later today, the fully Senate will receive a closed briefing on the NSA's sweeping surveillance programs.
Mueller testified that he believes the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is out of date and needs to be upgraded because of all the technological changes that have happened since it was implemented in 1986 (before cellphones and e-mail were widely used.)
Muller agreed that there should be a clear standard of collection for electronic information, but said he would caution against raising standards so much that they would inhibit what can be collected legally in order to thwart terror attacks.
The act was created to expand federal wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping provisions. It was envisioned to create "a fair balance between the privacy expectations of citizens and the legitimate needs of law enforcement." according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Congress also sought to support the creation of new technologies by assuring consumers that their personal information would remain safe.
"You also want to protect against abuse of that data," Mueller said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and other members of the committee expressed their frustration with Mueller after receiving repeated "I don't knows" on questions about what constitutes "metadata" and what constitutes "content" in the surveillance of e-mails and phone calls.
Mueller defined "metadata" in an e-mail as the header, but not the subject line of the e-mail.
When Chaffetz asked whether "geolocation" was part of the metadata that the FBI had access to from phone calls in the surveillance programs, Mueller said he would have to get back to Mueller on the question.
Chaffertz complained that Mueller had his questions in advance and should have come prepared to answer.
"It's terribly frustrating, and I know I won't get an answer," said Chaffetz.
The wide range of questions fielded by Mueller at the hearing speaks to the FBI's expanded role in recent years as a leading player in the fight against terrorism, not to mention all the high-profile investigation it currently finds itself leading.
Mueller has been grilled today -- so far -- about the recently revealed Internet and phone surveillance programs, the IRS's targeting of conservative groups, the FBI's leak investigation of Associated Press reporters, the monitoring of Fox reporter James Rosen, the probe of the attacks at the Boston Marathon, the sequestration budget cuts in Washington and their effect on the FBI, the "overclassification" of secret records in Washington, privacy in the digital age, geolocation, and even the level of violence in Puerto Rico.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., turned the hearing's focus to the Justice Department's subpoena of phone records of 20 Associated Press reporters, saying that the related leak investigation conducted by the FBI raises questions about abuse of the First Amendment and the separation of powers.
"Why was it necessary to to seek so many phone records of reporters," Lofgren asked Mueller.
Mueller didn't answer directly, but assured Lofgren that the FBI is "adapting special procedures to ensure the records are protected."
Lofgren asked Mueller if it was the FBI's practice to consider reporters, editors and publishers "criminals."
"Not in any way, shape or form," Muller answered, saying that the focus of the FBI investigation was on the person doing the leaking. He said that it is important to find out who the leaker contacted in order to be able to build a case for the courts.
In his opening statement, FBI Director Robert Mueller discussed counterterrorism, cybersecurity as well as concerns about protecting civil liberties.
He stressed the importance of addressing cyber-threats, saying:
We anticipate that in the future, resources devoted to cyber-based threats will equal or even eclipse the resources devoted to non-cyber based terrorist threats.
Mueller also addressed the importance of surveillance in law enforcement:
Court-approved surveillance is a vital tool for federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities. It is, for example, critical in cyber cases where we are trying to identify those individuals responsible for attacks on networks, denial of service attacks, and attempts to compromise protected information. However, there is a growing gap between law enforcement’s legal authority to conduct electronic surveillance and its ability to conduct such surveillance.
Mueller acknowledged the importance of upholding civil liberties and civil rights
Following the rule of law and upholding civil liberties and civil rights make all of us safer and stronger. In the end, we will be judged not only by our ability to keep Americans safe from crime and terrorism, but also by whether we safeguard the liberties for which we are fighting and maintain the trust of the American people.
Turning to the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups applying for a tax exemption, Mueller said that an FBI investigation was under way.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, pressed Mueller on details of the FBI's probe, especially as it related to coordination of the targeting in Washington. But Mueller said he couldn't comment on the details of an ongoing investigation.
The debate over where the targeting started has heated up in recent days.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, said Wednesday that bipartisan congressional interviews with IRS employees led him to believe that the initiative began outside the agency’s Ohio tax-exemption office and was directed by Washington.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House oversight committee, has argued that those same bipartisan interviews by House oversight staff show that the targeting campaign started in Cincinnati.
On Sunday, Cummings released partial transcripts in which a manager from the Cincinnati office, a self-described conservative Republican, told congressional investigators that he flagged the first tea party case for review by Washington officials.
A special agent from the same office said he created the initial search criteria used to single out conservative groups for additional review, according to the excerpts.
The NSA's recently revealed phone surveillance program enables collection of metadata about phone calls. While metadata doesn't include the content of phone conversations, it does include information such as who you called, the duration and time of the call and the location of the parties involved in a phone call.
Some experts have expressed concern that metadata can be "more intrusive than content."
This interactive from the Guardian newspaper explains what information about you falls under metadata - from the length of a phone call to the subject of an e-mail to where a photo was taken.
The FBI director said the threat from cyber-terror may eclipse the threat from terrorism in general in years to come.
"The diverse threats we face are increasingly cyber-based," Mueller said in his opening statement. "Much of America’s most sensitive data is stored on computers. We are losing data, money, and ideas, threatening innovation. And as citizens, we are also increasingly vulnerable to losing our personal information.
"That is why we anticipate that in the future, resources devoted to cyber-based threats will equal or even eclipse the resources devoted to non-cyber based terrorist threats."
He added that the FBI has built up substantial expertise to address cyber threats, both here at home and abroad.
When asked by Rep. John Conyers if the surveillance program that monitors phone calls made on Verizon's network collects the records of every person in the United States, Mueller said the answer was yes, within broad perameters.
But Mueller made the point that only metadata is collected -- the phone number, length of call, but not the content of the calls.
He added that the program has been "instrumental" in identifying and thwarting possible terrorists.
In his introductory remarks, FBI director Robert Mueller said that former contractor Edward Snowden's disclosure of sweeping surveillance programs has caused "significant harm to our nation and our safety."
Robert Mueller is 6th FBI Director. Has served in that capacity for nearly 12 years – the longest-serving director since J. Edgar Hoover.
— House Judiciary Cmte (@HouseJudiciary) June 13, 2013
He added that the leak is being fully investigated and said that the programs have been conducted in accordance with "the constitution and U.S. laws."
In listing the FBI's most important challenges, Mueller said that the "terrorist threat remains our top priority," making specific mention of the continuing threat from "homegrown terrorism."
The ranking Democratic member of the committee, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, opened the hearing by saying he planned to introduce a bill on Friday that "adjusts the oversight and impenetrability" of the Internet surveillance programs recently revealed.
Conyers said that government surveillance activity "exceeds the authority that Congress provides."
He said in his opening statement that it was important to return the United States to its "proper role as a beacon of civil liberties."
This will be the last appearance ever before the House Judiciary Committee for FBI Director Robert Mueller, who is nearing the end of his 12 years as head of the law enforcement agency.
His last day on the job is Sept. 4.
In addition to questions about the sweeping Internet surveillance programs recently revealed, Mueller may face questions Thursday about other high-profile investigations the FBI is involved in, including probes of the Boston Marathon bombings, the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans and leaks of classified government information.
Acting Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Danny Werfel testified Thursday at a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about conference spending. The tax-collection agency flew 2,600 managers in the small-business and self-employed division to Anaheim, Calif., for a training event that cost $4.1 million. Also testifying were J. Russell George, Treasury inspector general for tax administration, Gregory Kutz, an assistant to George, and Faris Fink, commissioner of the IRS's small business and self-employed division. The IRS officials were also quizzed about the decision to place two managers on administrative leave Wednesday for accepting free food and other gifts in violation of government ethics rules.