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Clash Over NSA Spy Programs on Capitol Hill

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Mueller, the director of the FBI, was on the Hill on Thursday to brief lawmakers on surveillance programs that were recently made public.

Top law enforcement and intelligence officials fiercely defended the Obama administration’s sweeping surveillance programs on Capitol Hill Thursday, emphasizing their legality, their record of success in thwarting terrorist attacks and the many opportunities lawmakers have had over the years to alter the programs that some are now criticizing as too intrusive.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, stood up to both Republican and Democratic critics in separate hearings about the programs, whose broad monitoring of telephone calls and Internet use around the world was exposed last week by a former NSA contract employee, setting off a national debate about the delicate balance between security and privacy in the post-9/11 United States. Meanwhile, intelligence officials briefed senators on the programs.

In what was likely his last appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller stressed the administration’s line on the controversial telephone and Internet surveillance programs: Lawmakers knew about the programs and had years’ worth of opportunities to change them. He also suggested that if the intelligence community had its present surveillance authorities prior to 9/11, it may have been able to thwart the attacks that occurred that day.

Mueller, who took over the FBI a week before the 9/11 attacks, is expected to step down soon. President Barack Obama is expected to nominate James B. Comey, a senior Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, to replace him.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, sparred with Mueller, contending that lawmakers’ knowledge of the programs did not make them complicit in the surveillance.

“The mere fact that some members may have been briefed in a classified setting does not indicate our approval” of these programs, Conyers said. “It’s my fear that we’re on the verge of becoming a surveillance state.”

Alexander told reporters Thursday that the intelligence community has used the surveillance programs to disrupt “dozens” of terrorist plots before they could harm Americans.

Some of the members in the briefing, however, came away with more modest numbers.

“At this point, I think we can say that at least this program has thwarted 10 possible terrorist attacks,” said C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the panel.

Mueller defended the legality the intelligence community’s actions, saying the goal has been to balance privacy with security.

“We recognize that the American people expect the FBI and its intelligence partners to protect privacy interests,” he said.

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