When FBI director Robert Mueller appeared before Congress late last month, it was with the purpose of answering questions about the government's national security letters program. A March Inspector General's report had revealed alarming details about the program's abuse and Mueller, for the first time in his six years at the head of the bureau, sat before the House Judiciary Committee to report publicly on the FBI's response.
What happened instead is now famous. Mueller, once a peripheral figure in the many controversies surrounding the U.S. Attorney General, dramatically contradicted Alberto Gonzales' account of his March 2004 visit to John Ashcroft's hospital room, and so became a central figure in the clash between the Justice Department and Congress.
But what about the national security letters? Or, for that matter, other important FBI controversies? At the July 26 hearing, Mueller acknowledged a handful of bureau failings, some altogether unrelated to the national security letters program. But he both strongly asserted the need to maintain the program and declined at several points to provide answers to questions about its operation, citing his need to look up details. As is typical at oversight hearings, the director promised to follow up with the information.
Nearly a month later, however, Mueller has not provided answers to those questions.
Less secretive than National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program -- but also less notorious -- the national security letters program has existed as a federal law enforcement tool for nearly 30 years, providing the FBI with a great deal of surveillance information by sidestepping the need for warrants and other safeguards. The letter is a subpoena of sorts -- one that commands the recipient (usually an organization) to provide the bureau with records and data about particular individuals. Except that this subpoena is also affixed with a gag order preventing the recipients from disclosing the fact that they were issued the letter in the first place.
The letters demand information that is unspecific -- metadata such as phone logs, as opposed to full emails or phone recordings. Still, unlike wiretapping or data mining -- which are at least in theory subject to judicial review -- the letters themselves aren't subject to outside oversight of any kind.
The USA Patriot Act broadened the FBI's authority to issue the letters, eliminating the requirement that they pertain only to foreign entities or agents of foreign entities and expanding the number of officers who are cleared to sign off on them. In the year after the Patriot Act passed, the number of national security letter requests issued by the FBI increased nearly 500 percent over the previous year, to a total of 39,000. In 2004, the FBI issued 56,000 requests, followed by 47,000 in 2005.
The March IG report raised serious questions about this deluge of domestic spying, and House Democrats claim to be demanding answers. At last month's hearing, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who chairs the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, asked about two numerical oddities.
According to the IG report, Nadler said, "the number of requests for NSLs from 2003-2005 was over 143,000. About half of those concerned U.S. persons. It also reports that the number of terror related convictions that the Inspector General was able to confirm [as a result] was one."
He went on: "The IG also discovered that the sub information for approximately 11,100 phone accounts was obtained from only 9 NSLs ? that ratio sort of implies a fishing expedition."
Mueller dodged Nadler's first point, asserting instead that the 143,000 requests resulted in a large number of prosecutions. And on the second point, he punted: "I'm not going to disagree with you in terms of the perception. I have to get back to you as to the circumstances."
National security letters are not the only controversy for which Mueller must still answer.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who chairs the full committee, asked Mueller to explain why the Department of the Treasury has declared two Dearborn, Mich., charities -- Goodwill Charitable Organization, Inc. and Al-Mabarrat Charitable Organization -- to be front groups for Hezbollah, prompting FBI raids and bank-account seizures even though nobody has been arrested or charged with any crime.
Conyers also asked Mueller for more information about allegations from Michigan residents that FBI and customs agents engaged in door-to-door voter intimidation one month prior to the 2006 elections.
Mueller has promised to provide more information about both of these controversies.
Conyers' staff remains confident that Mueller will ultimately respond in good faith. Certainly, it's often the case in oversight hearings that a month to six weeks will pass before all committee members' questions have been fully answered. Given the stakes, however, and the shocking details Congress has already uncovered about the administration's surveillance programs, the inquiry is hardly a routine one. When Mueller's answers are finally made public, they may establish whether the administration has violated the law in order to compromise Americans' civil liberties.