Former contractor Edward Snowden's highly publicized leaks on classified government surveillance programs have harmed national security by alerting terrorists to the ways the United States monitors their communications, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Thursday. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Former contractor Edward Snowden’s highly publicized leaks on classified government surveillance programs have harmed national security by alerting terrorists to the ways the United States monitors their communications, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Thursday.
“Nobody be misled: This hurts national security,” Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee. “One of the great vulnerabilities, terrorists understand, is their communications. Any tidbit of information that comes out in terms of our capabilities, our programs and the like, they are immediately finding ways around it. If we lose our ability to get their communications, we are going to be exceptionally vulnerable. There is a cost to be paid.”
The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into Snowden’s revelation of the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, which collects private online communications from companies such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google, and NSA’s collection of phone records and metadata from Verizon.
Several lawmakers on the committee expressed concern that NSA’s surveillance has gone too far and provides little benefit for catching terrorists while sacrificing the privacy of millions of innocent Americans.
Mueller said that if a similar phone-tracking program had been in place before the 9/11 attacks, the government could have discovered that terrorist Khalid al-Mihdar had called an al-Qaida safehouse in Yemen. By identifying al-Mihdar’s phone number in San Diego, Mueller said, authorities could have caught him before the hijacking of the plane that was flown into the Pentagon, and his capture could have brought down the entire plot.
“If we had had this program, that opportunity would have been there,” Mueller said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, called the surveillance “broad trolling” and asked if it could be narrowed to help the government focus on catching terrorists. Mueller objected to the term “broad trolling.” It would be possible to narrow the programs’ focus, Mueller said, but that would result in fewer “dots that are available, and maybe that dot prevents the next Boston.”
Mueller also said that the sequester’s budget cuts will deeply affect the FBI’s ability to prevent crime. The sequester cut the FBI’s fiscal 2013 budget by more than $550 million, and will cut at least another $700 million more in fiscal 2014, he said. The FBI’s ongoing hiring freeze will leave it with 2,200 vacancies by the end of 2013, Mueller said, and with another 1,300 vacancies next year. Mueller asked lawmakers to work with the FBI to find ways to mitigate the worst of the budget cuts, which he said could be devastating.
The FBI will not cut counterterrorism, counterintelligence or cybersecurity efforts due to the sequester, Mueller said, but it will have to find places to cut elsewhere, leading to tighter budgets for public corruption and civil rights investigations.
Pedro Pierluisi, a Democratic congressman who is Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in the House, asked Mueller if the FBI and other federal agencies can “surge” resources to Puerto Rico to help fight an epidemic of drug and gang violence. Mueller said he wants to help, but the FBI’s budget cuts leave him unable to send more agents than he already has.
“Under sequestration, the possibility of allocating additional resources to Puerto Rico is very, very difficult,” Mueller said. “I wish we could do more.”