FBI director: Bomb plot is reason to renew electronic surveillance powers

The head of the FBI on Wednesday used a recently thwarted bomb plot to press Congress to extend the agency’s ability to spy on foreigners abroad without a warrant.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told a panel of House lawmakers that some of the surveillance provisions, which are set to expire at the end of the year, are “absolutely essential” to stopping terrorists from attacking the United States.

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One of the particular provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows U.S. officials to conduct electronic surveillance without a warrant on foreigners living abroad whom they suspect of being engaged in terrorist activities.

Earlier this week, the CIA thwarted a bomb plot hatched by al Qaeda in Yemen that was aimed at exploding a commercial airliner headed to the United States. On Tuesday, it was revealed that the would-be attacker was actually an undercover Saudi intelligence agent who turned the bomb over to the FBI for investigation.

It remains unclear what role the FBI’s use of electronic surveillance, as argued for by Mueller on Wednesday, played in stopping the bomb plot.

“We've seen over the last several days, particularly with regard to the IED that was recently recovered, that terrorism is and should be and continues to be our No. 1 priority and the No. 1 priority of a number of our intelligence agencies,” said Mueller in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

“The amendments that are up for passage again — reenactment — at the end of this year [are] absolutely essential in our efforts to address this threat.”

The panel’s chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), pressed for an extension of the FISA provisions set to expire at the end of 2012.

“This law gives the intelligence community the tools it needs to determine who terrorists communicate with, what they say and what they may be planning,” said Smith.

“FISA strikes a balance as it allows the FBI to acquire intelligence information about foreign terrorists abroad, while preserving and protecting the civil liberties of American citizens no matter where they are.”