In the wake of revelations about the federal government’s surveillance programs, FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the programs based on the collection of millions of U.S. phone records, emails and other information that people transmit online as being vital to the nation’s national security.
At the beginning of the hearing, Mueller tried to make the case for the National Security Agency surveillance programs, otherwise known as Prism and the meta data collection and said that law enforcement “must stay a step ahead of criminals and terrorists” while remaining mindful of the civil liberties of Americans.
Mueller, who is stepping down this September, engaged in hypotheticals by claiming that had the metadata collection program had been in place before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, they would have identified one of the 9/11 hijackers in San Diego and most likely prevent the attack.
But Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. says he was “not persuaded that the argument makes it OK to collect information on every call,” adding, that by Mueller’s interpretation, it would be “anything and everything goes” scenario.
Mueller also testified that the government’s controversial surveillance programs that recently surfaced complied “in full with U.S. law and with basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution.”
It was revealed last month that the Justice Department had secretly gathered emails of Fox News correspondent James Rosen and many phone records of The Associated Press supposedly in an effort to crack down on leakers.
Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on the search warrant for Rosen’s personal emails, although he had testified to Congress that he had never heard of such an instance, and the Justice Department obtained the warrant only after federal officials accused him in an affidavit of being a potential criminal “co-conspirator” under a wartime law known as the Espionage Act.
Authorities also obtained phone records for Fox News lines, including those for a number that matched the number of Rosen’s parents.
In the past week, a 29-year-old contractor leaked National Security Agency documents on the agency’s collection of millions of U.S. phone records and the NSA’s collection of emails and other information that people transmit online to and from foreign targets.
That has touched off a national debate over whether the Obama administration, in its efforts to thwart terrorism, has overstepped by using intrusive surveillance methods.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the committee’s chairman, said when it comes to national security leaks, it’s important to balance the need to protect secrecy with the need to let the news media do their job. In a statement released, he said:
Over the past few years, we have witnessed troubling national security leaks and have learned that the Obama administration seems to be bending the rules in place that protect the freedom of the press in its investigations.
On Benghazi, Republicans accuse the administration of misleading the public about an act of terrorism in the heat of the presidential campaign by saying the Sept. 11, 2012, assaults on the U.S. diplomatic post grew out of spontaneous demonstrations over an anti-Muslim video. In the immediate aftermath, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice described it as a “horrific incident where some mob was hijacked, ultimately, by a handful of extremists.” The White House says Rice reflected the best information available while facts were still being gathered.
Goodlatte said the committee planned to further investigate the status of what Congressman Goodlatte called the FBI’s “stalled investigation” in Libya:
Unfortunately, it seems the Obama administration’s mischaracterization of the terrorist attacks angered the Libyan government, which hampered the FBI’s ability to conduct a thorough investigation.
Regarding the Boston Marathon bombings, committee members inquired into whether there was a breakdown in information-sharing between federal intelligence agencies, preventing the FBI from thwarting the explosions that killed three people and injured more than 260.
Russia’s internal security service, the FSB, sent information to the FBI about now-deceased bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011. The Russians told the FBI that Tsarnaev, who was an ethnic Chechen Russian immigrant living in the Boston area, was a follower of radical Islam and had changed drastically since 2010.
Because of a subsequent FBI inquiry, Tsarnaev’s name was added to a Homeland Security Department database called TECS, which is used by U.S. officials at the border to screen people coming in and out of the United States.
In January of 2012, Tsarnaev traveled to Russia and returned to the United States in July of that year. Three days before he left for Russia, the TECS database generated an alert on Tsarnaev, which was shared with a Customs and Border Protection officer who is a member of the FBI’s Boston joint terrorism task force. By that time, the FBI’s investigation into Tsarnaev had been closed for nearly six months because, according to the FBI, the bureau uncovered no evidence that Tsarnaev was tied to terror groups.