Campus & Community

FBI director underlines importance of National Security Letters

5 min read

But admits agency ‘fell short in its compliance with NSL statutes’

At the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Thursday (April 26), Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert S. Mueller III outlined terrorism threats, described how the FBI was fighting them — and how at the same time the agency was protecting civil liberties.

In the post-9/11 world, national security and civil liberties were not in conflict, he said, but had to be balanced.

“We have a right to privacy,” said Mueller, a onetime federal prosecutor who was sworn in as director just seven days before the 2001 terror attacks. “But we also have a right to ride the T to work without bombs exploding.”

The FBI has been under fire recently for its use of National Security Letters (NSL), documents used to access telephone and other electronic records without the approval of a judge. A report from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General estimated there were as many as 3,000 violations during the period 2003-2005.

Mueller admitted that the agency “fell short in its compliance with NSL statutes,” but that steps have been taken to correct it. And remember, he added: The Inspector General “concluded that none of the violations was intentional.”

FBI self-scrutiny was tough, said Mueller, and the agency catches most of its own mistakes. But he called Congress, the Inspector General, and the American public parts of a “wider safety net” that keep the FBI accountable. “We welcome this scrutiny,” he said, “painful though it sometimes is.”

The agency started using the letters in 1986. In 2001, the Patriot Act made it possible to search electronic records of Americans even if they were not under suspicion. And last year, the act was expanded to give the FBI wider power to search private records.

The letters are “typically where privacy concerns arise,” said Mueller. But by not taking a look, he said, “we risk missing a key piece of evidence.”

Mueller’s message of balancing national security with civil liberties — which he delivered to Congress in March and to civil liberties groups earlier this month — drew some immediate criticism at the heavily guarded Harvard event, where an audience of about 500 was on hand.

The director was barely two minutes into his speech when shouting and screaming taunts erupted in an upper gallery at the forum. As many as four protestors, men and women, demanded an end to government lying, repression, and detentions at Guantanamo Bay. They were escorted out.

Slightly shaken, Mueller said anyone was free to protest — “one of the great things about the United States.”

Moderator Jeanne Shaheen, director of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said later that she wished the protestors had simply voiced their concerns in the question-and-answer period. “Here at the forum,” she said, “we pride ourselves on being civil and respectful.”

Resuming his speech, Mueller called terror “the gravest threat to our way of life.” Authorities have dismantled terrorist camps abroad and sleeper cells at home (in Oregon, Virginia, Ohio, and New York), he said, “yet we are still not safe.” Non-state enemies are busy recruiting, training, and planning, he said — and require little money or infrastructure.

Mueller outlined a hypothetical scenario: British investigators find out that terrorists planning to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners have called a phone number in the United States.

Tracking the call might turn up an innocent friend, or a pizza shop. Or it might turn up a terror associate, and a key piece of evidence. “And should an attack occur, we would most certainly be condemned — and rightly so — for not connecting the dots that could have foiled this attack,” he said.

Mueller used the story to illustrate three things: That communications “are the lifeblood of terrorism”; that FBI searches do not access the content of a call, only its record; and that the agency “can quickly exclude” unrelated phone traffic to protect the innocent.

“Intelligence is not smooth,” said Mueller, taking a swipe at NBC’s “Law & Order” and its one-hour cascade of clues. “Most often, it is piecemeal – a name here, a phone number there.”

The FBI uses other means of protecting civil liberties, said Mueller, starting with legal training for new agents, and voluntary “privacy impact analyses” for national security data bases.

He also pointed to the FBI’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Unit.

Congress — upset with FBI stumbles in the privacy arena — this year may look into creating a separate domestic intelligence agency, similar to Britain’s MI-5.

But separating intelligence gathering and law enforcement would be inefficient and counterproductive, said Mueller, who sees the two functions as “synergistic in the fight against terrorism.”

After the speech, Mueller fielded questions on torture (the FBI has its own protocols against it); monitoring peace groups (the agency does not do it without “adequate predication” that violence will occur); and the Patriot Act (“It strikes the right balance”).

He also dismissed 9/11 conspiracy theories as inaccurate, and advised a young college student on a career path, saying that military service lays a good groundwork by building “tenets, habits, and practices you have for the rest of your life.” (Mueller, a 1966 graduate of Princeton University, served three years in the Marine Corps, including a combat tour in Vietnam as commander of a rifle platoon.)

He also sympathized with a young East Asian student who talked about a “virtual internment” of Muslim-looking people in the United States, who draw extra scrutiny wherever they go. “We do not look at color” in the search for terrorists, said Mueller. “From our perspective, it is a false trail.”

The director also admitted that the war on terror has drained resources away from traditional FBI pursuits, including bank robberies. But that the agency has so far kept up with investigations into civil rights abuses and white-collar crime.

Relations with U.S. Muslims are good, said Mueller, who has frequent meetings with that community’s religious leadership. But he admitted, “The worst thing that happened to American Muslims was Sept. 11.”