- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2012

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Wednesday urged the reauthorization of an act passed by Congress in 2008 — but slated to expire at the end of this year — that gives federal authorities the ability to conduct warrantless searches.

He said the law allows the collection of vital information about international terrorists “while providing a robust protection for the civil liberties and privacy of Americans.”

During a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Mueller said the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) gives law enforcement authorities wide-ranging surveillance authority to target terrorism plots at a time al Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents continue to scheme to attack U.S. sites.

“These groups have attempted several attacks in and on the United States, including the failed Christmas Day airline bombing in 2009, and the attempted bombing of U.S.-bound cargo planes in October of 2010,” he said.

“We also remain concerned about the threat from homegrown violent extremists,” he said. “Over the last two years, we have seen increased activity among extremist individuals. These individuals have no typical profile; their experiences and motives are often distinct. But they are increasingly savvy and willing to act alone, which makes them difficult to find and to stop.”

His comments came in the wake of the discovery that al Qaeda had undertaken a sophisticated plan involving a non-metallic underwear bomb to be used by a suicide bomber, who actually was a double agent working with the CIA and Saudi intelligence agencies.

Mr. Mueller testified that counterterrorism remains the FBI’s top priority, noting that in the past decade, al Qaeda has become decentralized, but the group remains committed to high-profile attacks against the West. He said records seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, as well as the recent conviction of an al Qaeda operative plotting to conduct coordinated suicide bombings in the New York City subway system, confirmed that the group was committed to renewed attacks.

He also said terrorist groups are using the Internet to connect with like-minded persons, adding that al Qaeda uses online chat rooms and websites to recruit and radicalize followers to commit acts of terrorism.

This continued activity, he said, is why the intelligence community must continue to “enhance our intelligence capabilities” and to “share information” to ensure that it gets to the right people before any harm is done.

In July 2008, Congress defied concerns about a post-Sept. 11 government assault on privacy rights and granted final passage to an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allowed spy-agency eavesdropping on terrorism suspects abroad, delivering a major policy victory to President George W. Bush.

Ending more than a year of wrangling between the White House and the Democrat-led Congress over modernizing the 30-year-old FISA, the new amendment allowed the government to intercept foreign calls without court approval and gave phone companies legal immunity for aiding the administration’s warrantless wiretap program enacted after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The 69-28 Senate vote that sent the bill to the president’s desk divided Democrats and spurred criticism of the party’s then-likely presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, for switching his position to support the bill. Mr. Obama voted for the bill, reversing a pledge during a hard-fought primary race to “unequivocally oppose” any bill that grants retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies.

The Obama administration also has asked Congress to renew provisions of the FISA Amendments Act, calling it a “top legislative priority of the intelligence community.”

The American Civil Liberties Union blasted the outcome but applauded the Democratic senators who voted against the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.