FBI director defends phone surveillance program

Senators question the FBI's collection of U.S. phone records

By , IDG News Service |  Government

A telephone records surveillance program run by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency raises serious privacy concerns and should be reined in, some U.S. senators said Wednesday.

Some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee pushed for changes to the surveillance program that allows the two agencies to broadly collect telephone call records from U.S. carriers, with some lawmakers calling for the records to remain with carriers until the agencies have a suspicion of a telephone number's ties to terrorist activity.

"I remain concerned that, as a country, we've yet to strike the right balance between intelligence gathering into the FBI and the civil liberties and privacy rights of Americans," said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, during a hearing on oversight of the FBI. "The American people deserve to know how broad investigative laws ... are being interpreted and used to conduct electronic surveillance."

FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the recently exposed phone records collection program, saying it was a critical piece of antiterrorism investigations. The phone records collection program authorized by the Patriot Act has been a key tool in disrupting 10 to 12 terrorist plots since Sept. 11, 2001, he told lawmakers. NSA officials said Tuesday that the two surveillance programs have helped disrupt more than 50 terrorist plots since then.

Also asked if the FBI uses drone aircraft to track suspects in the U.S. Mueller said the agency has, but it's been "very seldom."

But Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he will introduce a bill this week that would limit what records the FBI and NSA can collect.

Earlier this month, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about two surveillance programs, including the one used by the FBI and NSA to collect all phone records from Verizon Communications. The second program allows the NSA to collect information about emails and other Internet communications.

The phone records program is legal and is overseen by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Mueller said. In many of the 50 cases, the phone records have been "one dot among many dots" of information used by investigators, but in other cases, the phone records have been "instrumental," Mueller said.

Under the Patriot Act, the FBI and NSA have collected "billions of phone numbers," Leahy said. He asked if the agencies could still conduct the terrorism investigations with "good police work" to connect the dots if they didn't collect the phone records.

"You never know which dot is going to be key," Mueller said. "What you want is as many dots as you can [collect]. If you close down a program like this, you are removing dots from the playing field."

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