The FBI will lose capabilities used in tracking terrorists if provisions of the USA Patriot Act are allowed to expire, a senior FBI official said.
“As tools are removed or not provided to us … it does diminish our effectiveness at what we do,” said Gary M. Bald, FBI executive assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
The Senate last week blocked renewal of the Patriot Act through a filibuster, and portions of the law will expire at the end of the year.
Mr. Bald, who is also director of the FBI’s new National Security Branch, said the FBI needs to continue using the authorities permitted by the Patriot Act, including roving wiretaps, which allow the FBI to track terror suspects through their use of cell phones.
“We’ve had that capability for years on the drug side of the ship and frankly what it does is it cuts out the requirement for us to go back to a judge every time a drug dealer throws his cell phone in the river and gets another one,” he said.
Mr. Bald said a second provision about to expire is the so-called “sneak-and-peek” authority. The power is needed to follow intelligence leads related to hidden explosives, he said.
“If we have intelligence indicating that something is stored in a particular facility, say explosives, we have the ability to get a search authority, go in and do a search, and not leave a notice on the front door [that] we’ve been in there,” Mr. Bald said.
The search authority is important “if we have a source that says I think there’s explosives in that container and we don’t know who actually rented the storage warehouse,” he said.
In addition to roving wiretaps, the act grants the power to search, intercept and access voice communications, voice mail, e-mail and caller identification data. The lapse of the act also would limit some wiretap information sharing, foreign intelligence sharing, the power to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance, emergency disclosure power over private-sector communications outlets, liability protection for agents and legal immunity for wiretap assistance from the private sector.
Mr. Bald said he is the official responsible for making sure FBI probes are conducted within laws and regulations.
“The reality is folks have to be comfortable that the tools that they are providing us are used legally,” he said. “I can assure you they are. That’s my job and I feel that if I don’t do my job I’m subject to being arrested and put in jail. I’m not going to cut any corners.”
Mr. Bald said some authorities in the Patriot Act that will expire remain secret.
He noted that some of the powers, such as roving wiretaps, have been available to criminal investigators for years. “It’s a bit strange to me that those are the subject of the debate,” he said.