Washington — Washington -- FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III struggled yesterday to allay congressional concerns about growing management problems at the bureau, including a report of widespread abuse of its power to obtain phone, Internet and financial records without court oversight.
Mueller implored members of the Senate Judiciary Committee not to strip the bureau of its ability to gather evidence through so-called national security letters, which are administrative subpoenas issued by the FBI without having to go through a judge.
He said the recent abuses, detailed in a report this month by the inspector general of the Justice Department, were the result of honest mistakes rather than skulduggery.
But his assurances did not appear to comfort either Democratic or Republican members of the panel, some of whom said they are rapidly losing confidence in the ability of the FBI to protect the country from terrorism.
The FBI also disclosed at the hearing that a long-awaited computer upgrade was suffering from additional delays, and Mueller acknowledged that the bureau had recently come under criticism from a judge overseeing electronic surveillance in terrorism cases.
"Every time we turn around, there is another very serious failure on the part of the bureau," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "Another shoe drops, virtually on a daily basis.
"The question arises as to whether any director can handle this job," Specter said. "And the further question arises as to whether the bureau itself can handle the job."
The inspector general found that the FBI had circumvented Justice Department rules and regulations, and that its record-keeping system was in such disarray that annual reports to Congress greatly understated the number of national security letters the FBI was issuing. The report was a major embarrassment for the FBI, which has long said that it was using its investigative powers carefully and with regard for the privacy and civil liberties rights of ordinary citizens.
"We in the FBI, myself in particular, fell short," Mueller told the panel. Mueller said the bureau was addressing the problems, which he said were mainly the result of a lack of an audit and compliance program to track the number of letters being sent.
He said the inspector general did not find "deliberate or intentional" misuse of the powers. And he warned the committee that, without the power to issue the letters, the FBI would be greatly hampered in doing its job.
"The statute did not cause the errors; the FBI's implementation of the statute did," he said, referring to a provision in the terror-fighting USA Patriot Act that expanded the FBI's authority to issue the national security letters.
Rescinding the power "would handcuff us and inhibit us from doing the kind of investigation that's necessary to thwart terrorist attacks," Mueller said.
Democrats indicated that they might try to do just that. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel would be "reexamining the broad authorities we've granted to the FBI" under the Patriot Act.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for The Los Angeles Times.