FBI Director Asks Lawmakers to Renew Patriot Act Provisions


By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009; 1:39 PM

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III today urged lawmakers to move swiftly to renew intelligence-gathering measures set to expire in December, calling them "exceptional" tools to help protect national security.

Mueller told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he hoped that the reauthorization of two provisions contained in the Patriot Act would be far less "controversial" than in previous years. During the Bush administration, the law drove a wedge between investigators seeking to detect terrorist threats and advocates warning that it trampled on Americans' civil liberties.

In response to a question from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mueller said that his agents had used a provision that helped authorities secure access to business records about 220 times between 2004 and 2007. Data for last year was not yet available, Mueller said.

The measure, known as section 215 after its location in the Patriot Act, has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union as allegedly violating the First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens. It allows investigators probing terrorism to seek a suspect's records from third parties such as financial services, travel and telephone companies without notifying the suspect.

"It has been exceptionally helpful in our national security investigations," the FBI director said.

Another provision, allowing agents to carry out roving wiretaps of terrorism suspects, was used 147 times, helping to eliminate "an awful lot of paperwork" and to maintain full electronic surveillance of possible threats, Mueller said. In the past, authorities had to seek court approval for each electronic device carried by a suspect, from a cell phone and a blackberry to a home computer. But under Section 206 of the Patriot Act, one court application is enough to cover all of those machines.

The ACLU issued a report earlier this month depicting what it called "widespread abuses" of government authority under the Patriot Act, approved by Congress less than two months after terrorist strikes hit New York and Washington in 2001.

"The Patriot Act has been disastrous for Americans' rights," said Caroline Frederickson, the director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.

"Congress should use this year's Patriot Act reauthorization as an opportunity to reexamine all of our surveillance laws."

Agents' use of Patriot Act and other sensitive investigative tools has been a source of friction between FBI officials and Democratic lawmakers in the past.

Senators this morning asked Mueller anew about guidelines approved by Justice Department leaders in the waning weeks of the Bush administration.

The guidelines give agents more power to recruit confidential sources and engage in interviews in which they conceal their identities at earlier stages in a national security investigation, sometimes before they have developed solid evidence of criminal behavior.

Mueller has not yet had a chance to meet with new Justice Department or White House officials regarding their views on the Patriot Act, he said.

But at his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. expressed at least moderate support for renewing the provisions that will sunset in December.

David Kris, an expert on intelligence laws, won unanimous Senate confirmation today as the new leader of the Justice Department's National Security Division. Kris will play an important role in the Patriot Act reauthorization and in supervising the FBI's national security operations.

"It is important that [the Congress] examine more specifics," Cardin told the FBI director this morning. "We want to make sure you have the tools that you need, and that you have appropriate oversight. There may need to be modifications . . . a fine tuning of these provisions to make sure they are effective and used as intended by Congress."