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The Nation

FBI has some explaining to do

Senators question the bureau's director about abuses of power. He urges them not to gut a Patriot Act provision.

March 28, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III struggled Tuesday to allay congressional concerns about management problems at the bureau, including a report of widespread abuse of its power to obtain phone, Internet and financial records without court oversight.

Mueller implored members of the Senate Judiciary Committee not to strip the bureau of its ability to gather evidence through so-called national security letters, which are administrative subpoenas issued by the FBI without having to go through a judge.

He said the recent abuses, detailed in a report this month by the inspector general of the Justice Department, were the result of honest mistakes and not skulduggery.

But his assurances did not appear to comfort Democratic or Republican members of the panel, some of whom said they were rapidly losing confidence in the ability of the FBI to protect the country from terrorism.

The FBI also disclosed at the hearing that a long-awaited computer upgrade was experiencing additional delays, and Mueller acknowledged that the bureau had recently come under criticism from a judge overseeing electronic surveillance in terrorism cases.

"Every time we turn around there is another very serious failure on the part of the bureau," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said. "Another shoe drops virtually on a daily basis."

He added, "The question arises as to whether any director can handle this job. And the further question arises as to whether the bureau itself can handle the job."

The inspector general said the FBI had circumvented Justice Department rules and regulations, and that its record-keeping system was in such disarray that annual reports to Congress greatly understated the number of national security letters the FBI was issuing.

The report was an embarrassment for the FBI, which has long said it is using its investigative powers carefully and with regard to the privacy and civil liberties of citizens.

"We in the FBI, myself in particular, fell short," Mueller told the committee.

He said the bureau was addressing the problems, which he said were mainly the result of a lack of an audit and compliance program to track the number of national security letters being sent.

He said the inspector general did not find a "deliberate or intentional" misuse of power. And he warned the committee that, without the power to issue the letters, the FBI would be greatly hampered.

"The statute did not cause the errors; the FBI's implementation of the statute did," he said, referring to a provision in the Patriot Act that expanded the authority of the FBI to issue the national security letters.

Rescinding the power "would handcuff us and inhibit us from doing the kind of investigation that's necessary to thwart terrorist attacks," Mueller said.

Democrats indicated that they might try to do just that.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel would be "reexamining the broad authorities we've granted to the FBI" under the Patriot Act.

"What kind of management failures made it possible for the FBI to send out hundreds of national security letters containing significant false statements?" Leahy asked.

Under questioning, Mueller acknowledged that he had not been alerted to the abuses when they were discovered in 2004.

"Is that a failure of management?" Leahy said sharply.

"Yes," Mueller said.

The FBI's problems are more trouble for Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, who has been criticized over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

Those dismissals have focused attention on a provision of the Patriot Act that Democrats said was conceived by the administration as a way to put politically friendly prosecutors in high positions without Senate confirmation. The Senate recently voted to repeal that authority.

"There are growing concerns about the competence of the FBI and the independence of the Department of Justice," Leahy said at the outset of the hearing. "The administration got these powers and they bungled both of them."

Mueller also was grilled about the fired prosecutors, including Carol C. Lam, the former U.S. attorney in San Diego.

He acknowledged that an FBI agent in San Diego was told to stop talking to reporters after he was quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune saying that he thought Lam was fired for political reasons and that her removal would hurt corruption investigations.

Mueller defended the handling of the incident and said he was unaware of any instance in which agents had been hampered as a result of the firings.

"I do not believe it's appropriate for our special agents in charge to comment to the media on personnel decisions that are made by the Department of Justice," he said.

"I profoundly disagree," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who told the panel about the warning issued to the agent. "He was simply saying that it would affect cases that were ongoing. And I think he's entitled to his opinion."

Mueller said the agent said he was misquoted.

He said the FBI was not investigating any of the dismissals, nor had it been asked to participate in a Justice Department internal inquiry.

He described one instance, "unrelated to the U.S. attorneys who have been fired," in which the FBI received information about political influence "in a separate office, separate case." He said the matter was referred to the inspector general.

Spokesmen for the FBI and inspector general declined to elaborate.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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