FBI director says agency has become 'flexible and agile'

The FBI is using new anti-terrorism powers in a responsible manner, is boosting its intelligence capabilities and is progressing toward upgrading what agency officials have acknowledged as weak information technology capabilities, Director Robert Mueller said on Wednesday.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee jointly with Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Homeland Security Department, Mueller trumpeted the bureau's progress in its quest to become a "more flexible and agile" agency.

He particularly highlighted the bureau's progress in upgrading its antiquated computer systems and its ability to make use of the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act, which he said has greatly aided the fight against terrorism.

Mueller praised a provision in the PATRIOT Act that lets criminal prosecutors use information obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He said the change "effectively dismantled the wall between law enforcement and intelligence personnel. The resulting free flow of information and coordination between law enforcement and intelligence has expanded our ability to use all appropriate resources to prevent terrorism."

He also highlighted two other key provisions of the law: the ability for prosecutors to obtain nationwide court orders in terrorism cases and its anti-money-laundering features.

But Mueller did not mention two PATRIOT Act provisions that have become increasingly controversial. One lets investigators access library, bookstore and other business records under FISA, and the other lets investigators conducted secret searches of property.

Privacy advocates succeeded Tuesday in getting the House to vote to bar the latter provision. The vote came on an amendment to the fiscal 2004 spending bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments.

Electronic surveillance conducted under foreign intelligence law continues to rely upon a lower standard than surveillance conducted under criminal law: probable cause to believe that the individual is a foreign agent, as opposed to the criminal law's standard of probable cause to believe that the target has broken the law.

But the provision of the PATRIOT Act opened the door for criminal prosecutors to use FISA wiretaps and to direct the conduct of such surveillance. A November ruling by the 2002 FISA Court of Review affirmed the Justice Department's position encouraging broader use of such wiretaps.

Mueller also noted that the FBI implemented a common information technology platform in March 2003 and anticipates completion of its "virtual case file" by the end of the year.

But senators from both parties put the agency on notice that they are watching its progress in updating its computer capabilities. "We all know what a sorry state of affairs it was when you came into office," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. "Everyone on this panel has complained about" your computer systems.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., also asked Hutchinson whether Homeland Security is seeking to integrate its computers with those of the Justice Department and the FBI. He replied that the agency's chief information officer had his hands full in integrating pre-existing agencies' systems, hence information sharing is currently limited to "watch lists" of terrorism suspects.

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