The director of the National Counterterrorism Center expressed frustration Wednesday with critics of domestic spying, and said that after recent violent incidents questions about government intrusiveness had turned into complaints that the government wasn't doing enough spying.
"In the months before Ft. Hood I was advocating for the extension of some aspects of the PATRIOT Act, and I think for very good reasons people have some concerns," said NCTC Director Michael Leiter. "I got a lot of, 'Why should we allow you to keep spying on Americans?"' Leiter was referring to the November 2009 attack at Fort Hood in Texas, which killed 13 people.
"Several weeks later in the wake of Ft. Hood," said Leiter, "I was back on [Capitol] Hill. I tell you a whole lot of fewer people were complaining about me spying on Americans and a whole lot more people were complaining that I wasn't spying enough. It's a tough line to walk." Leiter also said attitudes about terror watchlists had changed after alleged "underwear bomber" UmarAbdulmutallab, who was not watchlisted, was allowed to board Northwest flight 253. Abdulmutallab is charged with attempting to detonate a bomb on the plane last Christmas.
Leiter and other top US intelligence and law enforcement officials discussed the balance between security and civil liberties at a conference Wednesday hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said that he didn't believe there was "an inherent tension between protecting national security and preserving civil liberties. . . . Yes, we have a right to privacy. But we also have a right to ride the subways without the threat of bombings. It is not a question of conflict; it is a question of balance."
Mueller said that wiretap laws and phone and internet providers have not kept pace with rapidly evolving technology, and that the government needs to improve the ability of law enforcement to monitor terrorist and criminal groups.
"Critical laws covering this area have not been updated since 1994, when we moved from a copper-wire phone system to digital networks and cell phones," said Mueller, speaking at a conference hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. "In some instances, communications providers are not able to provide the electronic communications we seek in response to a court order. As a result, they are often not equipped to provide timely assistance."
FBI Unable To Wiretap Mexican Drug Cartel
Mueller cited a recent case where the FBI was not able to intercept a drug cartel's communications. "A Mexican drug cartel was making use of a communications system that we were not able to intercept. We had to use other investigative techniques that were far more risky."
Mueller made his remarks in reference to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) which required communications companies to build their products and networks so the FBI could conduct court approved wiretaps. Parts of the law have been reviewed with legal determinations to cover some internet traffic but the comments by Mueller are part of an effort to give the FBI updated capabilities to wiretap new and emerging communications.
Following an increase in concerns about possible terrorist attacks overseas and possibly in the United States the Obama administration is seeking to update key surveillance tools for law enforcement. The issue could be controversial for the administration after the Bush administration sought and expanded certain law enforcement authorities after the 9/11 attacks with the USA PATRIOT act.
It is unclear how the Justice Department and FBI will seek the legal framework on the updated surveillance authority but some officials say they believe Congressional legislation will eventually be required.
The ACLU and other privacy groups have been critical of the FBI's desire to expand their surveillance authority. Last month Christopher Calabrese, ACLU Legislative Counsel said, "Under the guise of a technical fix, the government looks to be taking one more step toward conducting easy dragnet collection of Americans' most private communications."