POSTED: Thursday, June 13, 2013 - 3:00pm
UPDATED: Thursday, June 13, 2013 - 3:04pm
WASHINGTON (CNN) — A top-secret program that collects phone records of Americans is legal, conducted properly and possibly could have helped detect a 9/11 hijacker had it been in place before the 2001 terrorist attacks, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Thursday.
Mueller's remarks at a House Judiciary Committee hearing led an effort by Obama administration officials and some in Congress to push back against a firestorm of criticism about domestic surveillance in the aftermath of classified leaks last week that disclosed details of covert surveillance programs.
Civil liberties groups and legislators on the left and right are among critics condemning the secret programs under the National Security Agency as government overreach beyond the intention and limits of the Patriot Act originally passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks.
"It's my fear that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state, collecting billions of electronic records on law-abiding Americans every single day," Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the judiciary panel, said Thursday.
However, the top Republican and Democrat in Congress joined Mueller in defending the programs, disclosed through leaks of classified information to media, that have been reauthorized over the years with some revisions.
"This program does not target innocent Americans in any way, shape or form," House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday.
"These programs have helped keep America safe. They have enhanced our ability to go after terrorists who want to bring harm to the American people," the Ohio Republican said.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada took a jab at senators who complained they weren't told about the classified programs by urging them to attend a classified briefing on Thursday so that they are fully updated.
"If you don't go, you have no excuse for saying you don't know what's going on," Reid said of the critics.
After a similar classified briefing earlier Thursday for the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan said it was wrong to describe the NSA programs as either monitoring or surveillance.
"Wrong word. Not happening," he said of either description.
Under one of the programs, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the government collects billions of phone records to create a database for use in tracking suspected terrorists. Another under Section 702 of the Patriot Act deals with computer activity and other information of foreigners.
As explained by Mueller and other security officials, the phone records only show the numbers involved and the date and duration of the call. Any further information, such as the identities of the callers and what was said, requires federal court approval, they say.
"If you are going to connect the dots on a 9-11 style event or hopefully prevent a 9-11 style event, you have to have dots in the box in order to connect," Rogers said. "So all of this is just that little bit of information they might need - a phone number to a phone number with no names attached."
Mueller told the Judiciary Committee that the secret programs have been conducted in adherence with the Constitution and federal laws.
"The legality has been ensured" by the Department of Justice, and special federal courts set up to handle surveillance issues "ruled and monitored these programs and again, ensured the legality," he said.
He also explained how they might have helped detect 9/11 hijacker Khalid al-Mhidhar before he and others carried out the attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans in 2001.
Before the attacks, Mhidhar was being monitored by intelligence agencies in the Far East, but they lost track of him, Mueller said.
Meanwhile, authorities had the phone number of an al Qaeda safehouse in Yemen, he said, and learned after the 9/11 attacks that Mhidhar had called it from San Diego.
"If we had this program, that opportunity would have been there" to match the Yemen phone number to the San Diego number, he said.
On Wednesday, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander made a similar argument at a Senate committee hearing, saying the covert programs helped prevent "dozens" of terrorist events.
Alexander, who provided Thursday's classified briefings to legislators, and Rogers said they were working on how to make more information about the programs' successes available to the public.
"We ratcheted up their time frame for declassification of certain events so that the American public can see the full spectrum of successes of these programs while protecting civil liberties and privacy," Rogers said.
Conyers, however, said he believed Section 215 of the Patriot Act "is being used to engage in a nationwide dragnet of telecommunications records."
He also complained about the secrecy of the activities, saying the government relied too much on covering up what it was doing through classified programs.
As a result, Conyers said he was co-sponsoring legislation that would address "the overbreadth and impenetrability of the surveillance programs."
Mueller noted that Congress has reauthorized the Patriot Act more than once since 2001, and he said the classified leaks that revealed details of the programs hurt national security.
President Barack Obama has defended the Bush administration programs that were continued in his presidency as a proper balance between national security and privacy concerns.
Under his administration, legislative and judicial oversight of the Patriot Act has been strengthened, Obama told reporters last week.
Boehner, however, said Thursday that he was surprised the White House "hasn't stood up and made clear on an ongoing basis over this last week just how important these programs are."