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Lawmakers complain of FBI failures

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  • NEW: Lawmakers criticize FBI's errors in issuing secret "national security letters"
  • Mueller: "We had procedures but no mechanism to make sure they were followed"
  • FBI director asks for $445 million budget increase to fight terrorism
  • Director says FBI needs to expand "absolutely critical" surveillance capabilities
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From Terry Frieden
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- FBI Director Robert Mueller on Tuesday heard sharp complaints from lawmakers about the bureau's past failures but found no opposition to plans for a big budget increase.


FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies Tuesday before a House panel.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wisconsin, led criticisms of the FBI's serious errors in issuing secret "national security letters."

The documents request private information about individuals whose names surface in terrorism and intelligence investigations.

Obey and other Democrats on the House panel expressed disappointment that the FBI did not appear to have fully fixed how the sensitive letters -- sent to financial institutions, Internet service providers and other businesses that hold private citizen information -- are issued.

"Is this the last time we're going to hear about NSL violations?" Obey demanded.

"That is my hope and expectation," Mueller replied.

Criticism about the FBI's use of national security letters was first voiced in a report by the Justice Department's inspector general early in 2007. It was repeated in another report last month.

However, Inspector General Glenn Fine said it was no surprise that this year's report found continued problems, because it covered 2006, which was before he issued the initial stinging report.

The 2007 report covered the years 2004 and 2005.

One category of the NSLs known as "exigency letters" was particularly worrisome to some lawmakers because those documents may be issued on short notice to obtain information in urgent cases.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, wanted to know how the FBI could have issued such a letter in one case claiming that information was needed for a grand jury when, in fact, there was no grand jury investigation.

Mueller said he would await another report by the inspector general, who is nearing the end of his investigation into the FBI's use of exigency letters.

But the director acknowledged that agents had made crucial errors before Fine's original report a year ago.

"We had procedures but no mechanism to make sure they were followed," he conceded.

Mueller expressed confidence that changes made by the FBI in the past year have eliminated such abuses.

Mueller's appearance before the committee was scheduled to allow him to explain and justify a proposed $445 million budget increase that would boost FBI spending to a record $7.1 billion for the coming year.

The lawmakers expressed little opposition to the proposed budget.

The plan calls for hiring more than 1,000 FBI agents, intelligence analysts and support staff to expand the FBI's ability to combat terrorism, spying and other national security threats.

In a prepared statement to the committee, Mueller said most of the increase is needed to "conduct investigations to prevent, disrupt and deter acts of terrorism."

He said the FBI needs to expand its "absolutely critical" surveillance capabilities.

"Surveillance activities -- physical and electronic -- give us insight into and awareness of our adversaries, which in turn create opportunities to identify sleeper cells, disrupt support networks and communications, and recruit assets," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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