FBI Director Robert Mueller urged Congress on Wednesday to renew wide-ranging surveillance authority to thwart terrorism plots like the latest one in which an al-Qaida-engineered explosive device was to have been detonated on a U.S.-bound airline flight.
Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee the FBI is examining the device and said the scheme hatched in Yemen demonstrates that it's essential for Congress to reauthorize counterterrorism tools enacted in 2008. Some of these programs expire at year-end.
The provisions allow the government to target electronic surveillance on foreign persons reasonably believed to be outside the United States.
The amendments up for reauthorization this year "are essential in our efforts to address" the terrorism threat, said Mueller.
The FBI director said the law allows the FBI to identify those both within the United States and outside the United States "who would hurt us."
Mueller told the panel that "we've seen over the last several days" that terrorism should be "our No. 1 priority."
The FBI director's comments follow revelations that al-Qaida completed a sophisticated new, non-metallic underwear bomb last month and that the would-be suicide bomber actually was a double agent working with the CIA and Saudi intelligence agencies.
One expiring provision in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008 authorizes the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to annually target categories of non-U.S. persons located overseas, without the need for a court order for each individual target. The annual authorization must be court-approved. There can be no intentional targeting of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident either in the United States or abroad, nor may any person be targeted who is known to be in the U.S. The law requires the Justice Department to report to Congress twice a year on the executive branch's compliance with the law's requirements.
A separate portion of the law requires that surveillance directed at U.S. persons overseas be approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in each individual case. The surveillance must be based on a finding that there is probable cause to believe that the target is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power. Before the enactment of the 2008 amendments, the attorney general could authorize such information collection without court approval.