FBI Director Robert Mueller told a House committee on Thursday the government's massive undercover surveillance programs were court-approved and have been conducted in compliance with U.S. law and with oversight from Congress.
"The legality has been assured by the Department of Justice," Mr. Mueller said in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, adding that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court "has ruled on these two programs, monitors these two programs and has assured the legality of the efforts undertaken in these two programs."
Mr. Mueller, in his final appearance before Congress before he leaves office, testified about what he described as the "diverse threats" facing the nation and the FBI's commitment to carrying out its mission while preserving civil liberties.
In the national security arena, he highlighted the continuing danger from homegrown violent extremists, from an increasing number of persons and groups overseas engaging in terrorism, and from spies looking for state secrets, critical research and development data, intellectual property, and insider information.
He also talked about the growing number of cyber-based threats and the importance of strengthening relationships between the government and the private sector, particularly in the area of cyber security.
Addressing the use of technology, Mr. Mueller said it was "one tool we use to stay a step ahead of criminals and terrorists. Yet as we in the FBI continue to evolve to keep pace with today's complex threat environment, our values must never change. The rule of law remains our guiding principle … Following the rule of law and upholding civil liberties and civil rights make all of us safer and stronger."
A former federal prosecutor first named as FBI director on Sept. 4, 2001, just a week before the September 11 attacks against the United States, Mr. Mueller described ongoing leaks of the government's confidential information as harmful to national security, adding that terrorists here and abroad track leaked information "very, very closely." He that because of leaks, "we lose our ability to get their communications" and "we are exceptionally vulnerable."
Information has surfaced in recent weeks showing that the National Security Agency is collecting the records of millions of U.S. citizens along with the digital communications stored by nine major Internet companies. The revelation touched off a national debate over whether the Obama administration had authorized intrusive surveillance methods in its fight against terrorism.
The surveillance programs have been identified as one compelling Verizon Communications Inc. to provide the NSA with data on all its customers' telephone use and Prism, which monitors the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks. Their existence was made public by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old NSA technology contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp.
Mr. Mueller said the disclosures "caused significant harm to the nation."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, asked whether the surveillance programs were too far-reaching, saying he had become concerned that "we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state."
"It seems clear that the government's activity exceeds the authority this congress has provided, both in letter and in spirit," said Mr. Conyers, who said he will introduce legislation on Friday to impose restrictions and new oversight for the government's surveillance programs.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and committee chairman, said last week's unauthorized disclosure of NSA intelligence programs illustrated the Obama administration's ongoing problem of national security leaks. He said the Obama administration takes credit for having investigated more national security leaks than any previous administration, he was unsure whether it was due to "a more aggressive investigative approach to national security leaks or the simple fact that there have been a shockingly high number of leaks in the last four and half years."
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