- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III was subjected to bipartisan criticism yesterday by a Senate committee after refusing to discuss the Bush administration’s domestic terrorist-surveillance program because it is “classified.”

Mr. Mueller declined to give Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, assurances the program was worthwhile or to say whether it had resulted in any arrests or dismantled terrorist cells.

But the director stepped further into the breach when he told Mr. Specter the FBI had given a “full briefing”on the program to the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors.

“Well, we’re very interested in that, Director Mueller, but not as interested as a full briefing to this committee,” said Mr. Specter, adding that “this committee has oversight jurisdiction over the FBI. We’re going to pursue that, Director Mueller. That is not what I view as a satisfactory response by the administration.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who will take over as chairman next month, accused the Bush administration of going to “unprecedented lengths to hide its own activities from the public, while at the same time collecting and compiling unprecedented amounts of information about every citizen.”

Mr. Leahy said data banks, when compiled poorly or without proper safeguards and oversight, “do not make us safer, they just further erode Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.”

His questions gave insight into the issues he will pursue as chairman.

“The recent revelation that the Bush administration, since 9/11, has been compiling secret dossiers on millions of unwitting, law-abiding Americans who travel across our borders, highlights the importance of diligent congressional oversight,” Mr. Leahy said.

The Justice Department has called the domestic terrorist-surveillance program “essential” in its war on terrorism, adding that it “ensures we have in place an early-warning system to detect and prevent a terrorist attack.”

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said it focused only on communications with al Qaeda and had been “very effective” in protecting the United States against terrorist attacks.

Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have questioned Mr. Bush’s constitutional authority to conduct wiretapping, saying among other things the program improperly bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court established by Congress to approve secret surveillance or searches of those suspected of terrorism.

During the hearing, Mr. Mueller, who took over the FBI a week before the September 11 attacks, suggested that members of Congress look at “all aspects of the program and understand the context in which technology has developed exponentially.”

“Congress needs to grapple with the issues of this expanding technology and give us the tools we need to expeditiously do that which you said at the outset, which is to wiretap putative terrorists’ conversations so we have the information we need to do our jobs.”

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