FBI Director Robert Mueller had to concede that his agents had broken the law in obtaining personal information from American citizens and residents. He took responsibility for the incidents in front of a hostile Senate committee that condemned the sloppiness at Justice:
Bipartisan outrage erupted on Friday on Capitol Hill as Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, conceded that the bureau had improperly used the USA Patriot Act to obtain information about people and businesses.
Mr. Mueller embraced responsibility for the lapses, detailed in a report by the inspector general of the Justice Department, and promised to do everything he could to avoid repeating them. But his apologies failed to defuse the anger of lawmakers in both parties.
“How could this happen?” Mr. Mueller asked rhetorically in a briefing at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Who is to be held accountable? And the answer to that is I am to be held accountable.”
The report found many instances when national security letters, which allow the bureau to obtain records from telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit companies and other businesses without a judge’s approval, were improperly, and sometimes illegally, used.
Moreover, record keeping was so slipshod, the report found, that the actual number of national security letters exercised was often understated when the bureau reported on them to Congress, as required.
Not to kick a man when he’s down, but unless Mueller submits his resignation, he’s not really taking responsibility for anything. He did right yesterday by admitting the errors his agency made, and he can assume responsibility for cleaning up the mess and ensuring that the FBI stops violating the law in regards to data collection and national-security letters. If he wants to take responsibility for the violations themselves, a statement that implies that the entire organization is responsible for them, then Mueller really should resign and allow a new director to lead the FBI in a new direction. Otherwise, he should let those who violated the law assume individual responsibility — and fire them.
Andy McCarthy makes a good point about national-security letters, and why the FBI shouldn’t have the authority on its own to decide whether to self-issue warrants:
The controversy is maddening because it is a self-inflicted wound that will have outsized consequences. “Self-inflicted” not only because the FBI has failed to follow the rules but because it is dubious whether our national security required giving the FBI NSL authority in the first place — even though the FBI and DOJ aggressively lobbied congress for it. “Outsized” because the press and civil liberties extremists will inevitably conflate NSLs with the Patriot Act and other investigative powers that really are crucial. There is already a push for cut-backs, and we’re hearing “I told you so” from many people who have been railing hysterically about Big Brother since 9/11.
McCarthy wrote two years ago about the lack of need for NSLs, preferring the use of administrative subpoenas. The need for a separate review of these kinds of request from law enforcement has been aptly demonstrated in this incident. Those checks exist for the protection of law enforcement as well as the protection of civil rights.
We can’t afford sloppiness in law enforcement and counterterrorism, as Charles Grassley noted yesterday. The FBI spent most of its first fifty years developing a well-deserved reputation as a domestic spy service that perverted national politics for the purposes of its chief. Since J. Edgar Hoover’s death, it has done a splendid job of reforming itself. Neither America nor the FBI needs the agency to return to its darker days, even during wartime. We need an agency we can trust to be tough against terrorists and equally tough in defending our civil rights. An abrogation of that trust could be fatal all around.