WASHINGTON – FBI Director Robert Mueller struggled Tuesday to convince skeptical senators that despite recent abuses, the FBI should retain Patriot Act authority to gather telephone, e-mail and financial records without a judge’s approval.
“The statute did not cause the errors. The FBI’s implementation did,” the FBI chief told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., served notice: “We’re going to be re-examining the broad authorities we granted the FBI in the Patriot Act.” House Judiciary committee members delivered a similar message last week.
The Senate panel’s ranking Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, went further: “The question arises as to whether any director can handle this job and whether the bureau itself can handle the job.”
A Justice Department inspector general’s report this month revealed abuses in the FBI’s use of documents called national security letters to gather data.
Reviewing files from headquarters and four of 56 FBI field offices, Inspector General Glenn Fine found 48 violations of law or presidential directives between 2003 and 2005. He estimates there may be up to 3,000 unidentified or unreported violations throughout the FBI.
Mueller said he had instituted procedures for issuing these letters. “What I did not do and should have done is put in a compliance program to be sure those procedures were followed,” he added.
“We are committed to demonstrating to the committee, the Congress and the American people that we will correct the deficiencies,” Mueller said.
“I still have very serious qualms,” Leahy replied.
Mueller argued against some committee Democrats’ suggestions to inject judicial approval into the national security letter process.
But under questioning by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Mueller indicated he might trade the letters for administrative subpoenas, like those used in some drug and tax cases without prior approval of a judge. Mueller noted that administrative subpoenas can be challenged in court by the recipient and – unlike national security letters – enforced in court by the government.