FBI chief welcomes scrutiny as hearings near
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With congressional hearings set for this week on intelligence failures before September 11, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Sunday he was glad to get a letter from a whistle-blowing FBI agent and had no problem with any testimony she might give to Congress.
FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley has criticized the way FBI headquarters handled the investigation of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui and other probes, and recently wrote Mueller a letter outlining her complaints.
"I welcome the letter," Mueller said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I may not agree with all that's in that letter, but I welcome the suggestions."
Mueller and Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine are expected to testify Thursday at the Senate Judiciary Committee's public hearing about the FBI's performance before September 11, sources said Saturday. Rowley also has been invited to testify before the panel. A House committee will hold similar hearings this week.
In a May 21 letter to Mueller, Rowley accused FBI headquarters of hindering efforts by the Minneapolis, Minnesota, field office to learn more about Moussaoui. (Read the memo on Time.com)
Moussaoui, who had aroused suspicion as a student at a Minnesota flight school, was arrested on an immigration charge about three weeks before the September 11 attacks.
FBI headquarters rebuffed the Minneapolis agents' request for a warrant to search Moussaoui's computer and investigate him further. Moussaoui has since been charged as a conspirator in the September attacks.
Rowley also referred to a July 10, 2001, memo from FBI agent Kenneth Williams, who had warned FBI headquarters of the possibility that Osama bin Laden was sending followers to flight schools in Arizona.
Mueller said Sunday he regretted a statement he made September 14, saying the attacks on Washington and New York might have been averted if the FBI had known that terrorist suspects were attending U.S. flight schools.
"The fact that there were a number of individuals that happened to have received training at flight schools here is news, quite obviously," the director said then. "If we had understood that to be the case, we would have -- perhaps one could have averted this."
However, he said Sunday that having begun as FBI director a week before the attacks he had not seen Williams' memo when he made the earlier statement.
"I recall getting the memo and looking at the memo sometime later in September," Mueller said Sunday.
Ashcroft defends Mueller, surveillance guidelines
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, appearing on "CNN's Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer," backed Mueller's performance, saying he is doing a "good job."
Mueller last week announced a major reorganization of the FBI in response to widespread criticism of the bureau's handling of clues from the field before September 11. (Full story)
Ashcroft also defended new FBI surveillance guidelines and waved off criticism of the changes by a top House member.
In comments on CNN and "Fox News Sunday," Ashcroft stressed the fact that "we're at war" and backed the guidelines when asked about criticism leveled Saturday by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin.
Ashcroft said the FBI wants the same power and leeway that local law enforcement officials have in surveillance.
Previously, it didn't "have the authority to surf the (Internet) and look for bomb-making sites on the Net," Ashcroft said on Fox. "Any 12-year-old child can do it. The FBI ought to be able to do it."
Sensenbrenner said the Justice Department "has gone too far" in deciding to change guidelines that have limited the FBI's domestic surveillance activities for more than two decades. (Full story)
In response, Ashcroft said, "We have very serious challenges to address, and to leave us with agents who have their hands tied in the field ... is foolhardy."
Ashcroft last week announced that guidelines limiting domestic surveillance -- put in place in the 1970s by the Ford administration -- would be relaxed to allow FBI agents to attend public political meetings and scour Internet sites to obtain information about possible terrorist activities.
Under the old guidelines, the FBI could only initiate such surveillance if it had a reasonable suspicion that a crime was being planned.
Ashcroft said law enforcement is improving its "capacity to understand and to anticipate and prevent" future terrorist attacks.
"Obviously the terrorist threat exists," Ashcroft said. "Al Qaeda wants to kill us, that's their stated purpose. They've stated it since September 11. So we have a real job of preventing terrorism, of taking steps to make sure that what happened before doesn't happen again."
Asked whether suicide bombings such as those carried out by Palestinian militants against Israelis can happen in the United States, Ashcroft replied, "I don't believe we can rule out any kind of terrorist attack.
"And as soon as we say, well, something couldn't happen here, that probably elevates the risk that it could happen here because it would reduce our sensitivity, it would reduce our vigilance," he said.
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