FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the amassing of widespread phone records, before a House Committee, saying had it been in place before the Sept. 11 attacks, the attacks could have been “derailed” and that it was used to track a friend of the Boston Marathon bombers.
Monitoring calls between a Yemen safe house and an organizer in San Diego, “could have derailed the plan, in any case, the opportunity was not there,” Mueller told the House Judicary Committee. “If we had this program that opportunity would have been there.”
He said the phone program was also used to track Ibragim Todashev, who was shot by agents while being interrogated, saying he was found through means “including one of the programs that is under scrutiny today.”
“We came upon him in a variety of ways,” Mueller said.
Mueller also addressed criticism that the program doesn’t recognize civil liberties.
“We recognize that the American public expects the FBI and our intelligence community partners to respect privacy,” Mueller said. “The programs have been carried out with extensive oversight from courts, independent inspectors general and Congress.”
Mueller also insisted that the leaks about the program have made it easier for terrorists to circumvent investigators.
“This hurts national security,” Mueller said. “We’re going to lose our ability to get their communications. We’re going to be exceptionally vulnerable.”
Mueller said terrorists are paying “very,very, very” close attention to news about their programs.
“All I can say, is that there is a cost to be paid,” he said.
Mueller said he could provide little details about the ongoing investigation into Edward Snowden, the contractor who leaked the information to the press. Snowden is being investigated, Mueller said.
“These disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and our safety,” Mueller said.
The topics at the previously-scheduled Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday morning, Mueller was called on to explain surveillance programs that collected billions of domestic phone records, the investigation into the attack at the Benghazi consulate, the Boston Marathon bombing, drones and the Guantanamo detention facility.
“I know there is little you may be able to say about these programs in a public hearing,” Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said. “But I and other members of the committee believe it is important for you to explain, to the extent you are able, why you believe these programs are a necessary part of America’s counter-terrorism operation.”
The hearing comes in the middle of on-going debate in Congress about how to respond to revelations brought to light by a leaker last week that the NSA is amassing phone records from domestic calls.
Mueller only has a few months remaining in his term. President Barack Obama last month appointed James Comey to take over the agency. Mueller has been the head of the agency for the past 12 years.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, expressed concern about the monitoring of phone and Internet records.
“It is my fear we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state, collecting records on law abiding citizens every day,” Conyers said. “A free society can only be free if it has the informed consent of its citizens.”
Conyers has been out front of other Democrats in criticizing the program and the administration.
He announced that he and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) will file a bill Friday to address the surveillance program. Amash, one of the most conservative members of the House Republican caucus, has been vocal in his criticism of the program.
In another controversial topic, Mueller also addressed some criticism that has grown from Republicans into the response to the attack of the consulate in Benghazi. Republicans have been critical of the delay in getting an FBI investigation team to the scene of the attacks.
“There were a number of factors that made this as unique a situation overseas as we’ve seen,” Mueller said. “In Benghazi there is no law enforcement, there is no body that you can deal with it, in terms of ensuring your security.”
Republicans have tried to tie the changing of a set of talking points that were used by then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice on a series of Sunday morning talk shoes that attributed the attacks to a protest with the delay in getting to the consulate to begin the investigation. Republicans on the Oversight Committee asserted that Libyan officials were unhappy with the attack being attributed to the protests and delayed issuing visas to investigators as a result.
Mueller confirmed that FBI investigators were unable to get the visas, but said both his agency and State Department officials tried to get the Libyan government to help.
“The Libyan government is unstable,” Mueller said. “The bottom line is to ensure the security of our people when we went in.”
He was pressed by Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) where the delay caused any problems.
“The delay adversely impacted the ability to gather evidence in a variety of ways,” Mueller said.
To which Coble responded that he remains concern about Benghazi saying, “I don’t suggest it was a coverup but it has the trappings of a coverup”
Mueller also spoke about the Boston Marathon Bombing investigation, saying agents in Boston had done everything to investigate after receiving the tip.
“When we got the lead on Tamberlan form the Russians that the agent did an excellent job investigating,” Mueller said.
He added that steps are being taken to remedy the problems that allowed Tamerlan Tsarnaev to travel undetected to Russia. But he cautioned that had those changes been in place before, he doesn’t think it would have prevented the bombing.
A few Republicans also pressed Mueller on the investigation into leaks regarding Fox News reporter James Rosen, whose emails and correspondences were obtained by Department of Justice investigators.
Mueller insisted that Rosen was never the target of a criminal prosecution.
“Not to my knowledge,” Mueller said.
Mueller spoke to the current terrorists threat, saying that groups seeking to attack the United States are evolving and becoming more advance.
“We face a continued, on-going threat from homegrown terrorists,” Mueller said. “At the same time, foreign terrorists still seek to strike as at home and abroad.”
He also said increasing cyber criminals seeking to exploit weaknesses in government computer systems, saying response efforts now span every part of the FBI.
“This cyber threat may well eclipse the terrorist threat in years to come,” he said.
FBI director defends surveillance programs