- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday questioned whether the FBI has the ability and expertise to collect and process domestic intelligence in a post-September 11 world, suggesting the job might have to be given to a new agency.

During bipartisan criticism of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee’s ranking Republican, said the September 11 attacks could have been prevented “had there been adequate intelligence and adequate coordination among our intelligence agencies.”

“The United States places great reliance on the FBI, and it has an illustrious history. But the question is emerging as to whether the FBI is up to the enormous task that we have asked it to perform,” Mr. Specter said. “Every time we turn around, there is another very serious failure on the part of the bureau.”

Mr. Mueller has come under fire in recent months over reports concerning “widespread and serious misuse” of the FBI’s National Security Letter authorities, its “haphazard” collection and reporting of terrorism-related statistics, its inability to account for lost and stolen laptop computers containing sensitive or classified information, and its failure to provided accurate information for surveillance warrants.

“Director Mueller, this committee has enormous respect for you, and I have enormous personal respect for you,” Mr. Specter said. “The question arises as to whether any director can handle this job, and the further question arises as to whether the bureau itself can handle the job.”

Several committee members challenged the FBI’s management and competence, including Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and panel chairman, who said the bureau had not yet lived up to promises to be “the world-class domestic intelligence agency that the American people expect.”

“The are growing concerns about the competence of the FBI and the independence of the Department of Justice,” Mr. Leahy said. “This pattern of abuse of authority and mismanagement causes me, and many others on both sides of the aisle, to wonder whether the FBI and Department of Justice have been faithful trustees of the great trust the Congress and American people have placed in them to keep our nation safe, while respecting the privacy rights and civil liberties of all Americans.”

Mr. Leahy said the Bush administration sought and received new powers under the USA Patriot Act to more freely use so-called National Security Letters (NSL) to track down terrorists and to appoint U.S. attorneys, but had “badly bungled both.” The NSLs can be used to obtain electronic records without approval from a judge.

The chairman said Congress might have to scale back the broad authority it gave the FBI under the Patriot Act, citing “growing concerns about the competence of the FBI.”

“It seems to me the FBI is again at a crossroads,” he said. “Some are calling on Congress to take away the FBI’s domestic intelligence functions, create a separate domestic intelligence agency like Britain’s MI5.”

Mr. Specter added that questions concerning the FBI’s recent performance had “stimulated recent debate on whether we ought to turn to the British MI5 system,” a consideration he said warrants “very serious deliberation by this committee.”

Of major concern to the committee was a report last week by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, which said the FBI’s failure to create “sufficient controls and oversight” had led to “widespread and serious” misuse of its authority to gather telephone, e-mail and travel records and financial documents. The report described the misuses the result of “mistakes, carelessness, confusion, sloppiness, lack of training, lack of adequate guidance and lack of adequate oversight.”

Mr. Mueller took responsibility for the shortcomings, acknowledging that “mistakes were made,” but said the deficiencies were being addressed and would be corrected.

He urged the committee not to alter the Patriot Act, saying it would “handcuff us and inhibit us from doing the kind of investigations necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.”

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