FBI chief seeks new powers; rebuffs critics
FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that Congress should grant law enforcement and intelligence agencies greater surveillance powers to combat terrorism.
Responding to a question from Sen. John Warner, R-Va., about whether new anti-terrorism legislation is necessary, in spite of the curbs it could impose upon privacy and civil liberties, Mueller said he wants changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. "I do not believe that would be undermining the privacy of our citizens at all," he said.
Mueller also angrily defended the FBI against charges of failure made by Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Edwards charged, "the FBI has obviously had a chance to reform itself. I don't believe the FBI has met that challenge." Edwards vowed to introduce legislation this week to strip intelligence powers from the bureau and pass them to another agency.
Mueller said Edwards had "overlooked" much of the work the bureau has done since the Sept. 11 attacks to improve its collection and analysis of terrorism information and to cooperate with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Mueller also said Edwards didn't recognize the FBI's capacity to conduct those operations. Though the bureau has taken intense criticism for not doing more to stop terrorists operating in the United States, many of its supporters-and detractors-regard it as one of the few agencies equipped to collect information about what terrorists are plotting.
Mueller said Edwards has yet to accept his offer to visit FBI headquarters to see the changes at the bureau firsthand. The senator, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, said he would visit the FBI for a briefing, but not necessarily before introducing his proposed changes this week.
A spokesman for Edwards said the authors of the legislation are still deciding whether the FBI's information collection mission should be transferred to an existing agency, or if a new agency should be established to house it. President Bush has ordered the creation of a new terrorism information center to be a clearinghouse and center of analysis for terrorism-related data from the FBI and intelligence sources. That organization would operate independently, but its head would report to CIA Director George Tenet.
It was not immediately clear whether Edwards' proposal to reorganize the FBI would conflict with the president's new organization. A spokesman for Edwards said staffers were "still trying to get more information" about the center, which Bush announced in his State of the Union Address and the White House later described in a statement.
Tenet, who testified with Mueller, told senators that intelligence agencies are "working directly, and in real time" with law enforcement to capture al Qaeda members plotting to attack targets in the U.S. and on the Arabian Peninsula. Those plots, revealed last week, prompted the administration to raise the terrorist threat level to "high" for the second time since Sept. 11, 2001.
Tenet said the information gleaned about the suspected attack plans is the most specific to date, and that it points to the possible use of radiological dispersion devices, known as "dirty bombs," as well as poisons and chemicals.