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Ashcroft defends FBI's Mueller

Ashcroft told Larry King that he still believes that the FBI is "the greatest law enforcement agency in the world."  

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft said Friday both he and President Bush retain confidence in FBI Director Robert Mueller, despite questions about the bureau's handling of information on Middle Eastern men seeking flight training prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"He's grabbed the agency. He has begun to shift the culture," Ashcroft said in an interview Friday on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"He's established a reformation which will allow us to consolidate the terrorism information in Washington, to see where these pieces fit together, to use the electronic analysis, the data processing as well as human analysis, to get that done."

Asked whether Mueller would leave his post, Ashcroft said, "Not if I can help it."

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Much of the information about flight training that is now the focus of controversy was gathered before Mueller took the helm of the FBI, just a week before the attacks. But the director has been criticized for downplaying the possibility that the information from field agents could have stopped the plot of the suicide hijackers.

An editorial Friday in the Wall Street Journal urged Mueller to make an "honorable resignation" to clear the way for a new "mindset" at the bureau.

While defending Mueller, Ashcroft said the revelation that FBI agents had information about flight training by Middle Eastern men before the attacks -- which was not acted upon -- was "surprising to me."

"My sense is that when you have 11,000-plus agents around the world in 55 different district offices covering the entirety of the United States and then 44 different countries, there are a lot of pieces of puzzles that can exist out there," he said.

"One of the things we've got to do is to improve our ability to take those puzzle pieces -- fragments of information that we get -- put them together and see what we can see from bringing those bits of information."

Mueller and Ashcroft this week announced a major restructuring of the FBI which will shift more agents into counterterrorism efforts and change the agency's primary focus from responding to domestic crime to trying to prevent terrorist attacks.

Agents will also have increased powers to launch investigations, and they will be able to monitor public meetings and Internet sites to gather information. But Ashcroft said the new procedures will not mean that the FBI will invade the privacy of individual Americans.

"The new rule says that the FBI has the right to go to public places on the same terms and conditions as other members of the public for counterterrorism purposes," he said. "Now that means if there is a rally of people who are criticizing the United States and its policies and saying that the United States will someday perhaps be destroyed because of that, the FBI agent can go and listen to what's being said. But it's a public meeting. This is not wiretapping."

"These are things posted in public on the Web. This is not reading people's e-mail. This is reading what people put into the public domain. If you hire a billboard, and you write what you're saying on the billboard, I don't think it's an invasion of privacy for the FBI driving by to look at the billboard and read it."

Ashcroft said he still believes that the FBI is "the greatest law enforcement agency in the world."

"But nothing remains great without a capacity to change and to accommodate the conditions of a changing world," he said.




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