WASHINGTON — Even the ranking Democrat expressed concern about the Obama administration’s snooping scandals in his opening remarks, as FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared before the House Judiciary Committee this morning.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said, “It is my fear we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state, collecting data on millions of Americans everyday.”
He said if every call is considered relevant to law enforcement, then the relevance standard enacted into law has little meaning.
Conyers acknowledged attending classified briefings meetings on data-collection programs, but noted he was prevented from taking notes or even discussing what he had learned with anyone else.
He said many lawmakers opposed the Patriot Act precisely because of what they learned in those sessions.
Conyers said he will introduce a bill tomorrow to narrow the breadth of the surveillance program.
In his opening remarks, Mueller defended the recently revealed spy programs, saying they are constitutional and have been approved by the courts.
Mueller revealed that whistleblower and former NSA employee James Snowden is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.
The director said Snowden had done significant harm to the nation, but, because a criminal investigation is underway, there is limited information he can provide on that.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., asked Mueller about his assertion investigators need FISA court authorization to collect information on the content of phone calls.
Nadlar said, “We heard just the opposite in a hearing the other day. Maybe you better go back and check, because someone is incorrect.”
“I will do that,” Mueller replied.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who helped author the Patriot Act, maintains it has been abused by the NSA and the Obama administration. He also claims the president has falsely claimed Congress authorized all NSA surveillance.
The senator began his remarks with a pair of Obama quotes critical of data collection in the Bush administration, claiming it violated civil liberties.
Sensenbrenner asked, “What new privacy protections did the FBI put in place under President Obama?”
“I do not know specifically, but there are safeguards,” replied the director.
“That’s not my question. Were there new protections put in place by Obama?”
“I am not certain,” said Mueller.
“So, there might not have been,” concluded Sensenbrenner.
Mueller faced harsh questioning on another topic by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
Jordan intensely grilled the director on progress made in the FBI’s criminal invesitgation of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
The congressman became increasingly frustrated as Mueller answered a series of questions by saying he had little information on the investigation.
When Jordan asked Mueller who the lead investigator was, the director said he did not know.
Jordan seemed incredulous.
“You do not know who is the lead investigator on the most important issue before the nation?”
“No, I do not.”
Jordan pressed on, asking if the FBI paid visits to any of the tea party members improperly scrutinized by the IRS.
“I don’t know,” replied Mueller.
Some of them specifically said they were visited by FBI said Jordan, citing a Catherine Engelbrecht in Texas.
“I don’t know,” said Mueller, once again.
“You don’t know,” echoed Jordan.
“You’re asking me details about the investigtion…” Mueller began to explain.
But Jordan cut him off, saying, “No I’m not, I m asking why the FBI visited these people, that happened before the investigation started.”
“You are asking about the investgtion,” the director tried to reiterate.
Almost yelling, Jordan insisted, “No, I am not, I am asking basic questions such as who the lead investigator is, and you can’t even answer that.”
BOSTON MARATHON ATTACK
Another congressman became irritated with Mueller on another topic, the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, asked Mueller why the FBI did not bother to check out a mosque after it was tipped off by Russian intelligence.
“Your facts are not all together,” Mueller replied.
His voice rising, Gohemert shot back, “Sir, if you’re going to call me a liar you need to point out specifically where any facts are wrong.”
“We went to the mosque. Prior to Boston,” Mueller replied.
“Were you aware that those mosques were started by (Abdurahman) Alamoudi?” Gohmert asked, referring to the man who founded the Islamic Society of Boston and is now serving a 23-year prison sentence for illegal dealings with Libya and participating in a plot to kill a Saudi prince.
“I’ve answered the question, sir,” the FBI director replied.
“You were not, okay,” said a seemingly satisfied Gohmert, who ended his questioning there.
9/11 AND THE PATRIOT ACT
More information came to light earlier in the hearing on the NSA scandal when Rep. Sensenbrenner said he was very interested in Muller’s speculation this morning that the current surveillance program might have prevented the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
He noted the Patriot Act stipulates spying is to be directed only at foreigners, unless they were in contact with Americans.
Sensenbrenner didn’t think the act as originally designed would have prevented surveillance of the 9/11 terrorists, so he wondered how it now could be used to “scoop up phone records of Americans who are not in contact with foreigners?”
Mueller didn’t have an answer, saying he would have to refer the senator to the Justice Department. The director did insist the courts have ruled the their interpretation of the law has satisfied the relevancy requirement.
But Sensenbrenner pressed on, saying their were no due process protections in place, because the recipients of FISA warrants have no idea when their records have been obtained, and therefore, they can not challenge them.
Mueller said the Supreme Court has determined those kinds of records are not protected by the Fourth Amendment, but another questioner wondered if the ruling hadn’t been rendered obsolete by the immense advances in technology and data-collection abilities.
Sensenbrenner wrote in the Guardian on Sunday the Patriot Act was not designed to allow “the government to monitor the phone calls and digital communications of every American, as well as of any foreigners who make or receive calls to or from the United States.”
But, the world recently learned the Obama administration is using the NSA to collect records of every call made to, from or within the U.S., as well as records of many digital communications.
“This is well beyond what the Patriot Act allows,” wrote the senator, adding, “In fact, our law was designed to protect liberties.”
Obama defended the program by saying “every member of Congress has been briefed on this program.”
Sensenbrenner wrote, “While some members of Congress were briefed – particularly those on the intelligence committees – most, including myself, were not.”
He defended the act itself, writing, “The Patriot Act has saved lives by ensuring that information is shared among those responsible for defending our country and by giving the intelligence community the tools it needs to identify and track terrorists.”
But the senator said the administration went too far, because it uses the law “to sift through details of our private lives.”
Sensenbrenner noted how the president justified the massive collection of phone and digital records as two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress.
But, wrote the senator, “Congress has never specifically authorized these programs, and the Patriot Act was never intended to allow the daily spying the Obama administration is conducting.”
“Technically, the administration’s actions were lawful insofar as they were done pursuant to an order from the FISA court. But based on the scope of the released order, both the administration and the FISA court are relying on an unbounded interpretation of the act that Congress never intended,” he continued.