Mueller: Surveillance Programs Could Have Prevented 9/11

FBI director testifies that secret programs necessary for security

Robert Mueller / AP
• June 13, 2013 3:03 pm


The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation defended intelligence agencies’ surveillance programs Thursday and said one of the programs involved in the broad collection of telephone call data could have helped prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks if it had been created earlier.

Several members of Congress expressed concern that NSA monitoring of phone "metadata," including the number and duration of calls between phones, and Internet data such as emails and documents infringes on the privacy rights of Americans.

FBI Director Robert Mueller countered that the programs have been "instrumental" in identifying terrorists and could have aided FBI agents before the 2001 Patriot Act authorized them.

He said intelligence agencies lost track of an overseas al Qaeda associate of principal 9/11 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar after he relocated to a safe house in Yemen. Mihdhar at one point called his Yemeni accomplice from a phone in San Diego, which the FBI was not able to track, he said.

The 9/11 Commission report later determined that a more thorough investigation of Mihdhar might have helped authorities thwart the terrorists’ plans, Mueller said.

"If we had this program that opportunity would have been there," he said.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) questioned whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which authorizes surveillance of those suspected of engaging in terrorism, provides proper oversight of the records requested by intelligence agencies.

"My concern is that there really isn’t any way for someone whose records have been authorized to turn over can approach the FISA court because they don’t know about it," Sensenbrenner said.

Mueller responded that Supreme Court rulings have determined that the Fourth Amendment does not protect the phone records collected by the program and that the FISA court has upheld the legality of that standard.

Mueller was also asked about the IRS and Benghazi investigations but declined to comment on many of the details.

The investigation into whether the IRS purposely denied tax-exempt status to conservative groups is underway, he told Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), but he did not know the lead investigator on the case or how many people were assigned to it.

Representatives conveyed the most confusion about the investigation into the Benghazi attacks, where the FBI’s Evidence Response Team was denied access to the embassy site for two weeks. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attacks.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) pointed to former deputy Libyan ambassador and whistleblower Gregory Hicks’ testimony that the Libyan government was "angered" by the Obama administration’s initial characterization of the attacks as a response to a video critical of Islam. Mueller said security was the larger issue.

"In Benghazi there is no law enforcement," he said. "There is nobody that you can deal with in terms of your security."

That response failed to satisfy Rep. Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.).

"If Benghazi was not safe enough for the premier law agency in the world, how was it safe enough for diplomats?" he asked.