Last Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee heard testimony from FBI Director Robert Mueller and director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Matt Olsen on Domestic Threat Intelligence. For the most part the hearings served as an opportunity for Directors Mueller and Olsen to tout their respective agencies’ intelligence-gathering prowess. To the casual observer, the hearings appeared fairly cordial, as a lot of the questions could be categorized as either softballs or as related to an individual committee member’s pet project. One notable exception occurred when Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky grilled Director Mueller on recent FBI trainings that have portrayed Muslim Americans as violent extremists. But even Representative Schakowsky’s line of questioning was tempered somewhat by Chairman Mike Rogers, who threw the directors an opportunity to reiterate their commitment to civil liberties without actually discussing any of the incidents that indicate otherwise. The hearing began with the Committee Chairman and Ranking Member opting out of opening remarks in the interest of time; Directors Mueller and Olsen were both given the floor to provide their testimony, which was largely laudatory. Director Mueller stated that while national security had become the agency’s highest priority, the Bureau “continu[es] to safeguard American civil liberties.” This claim of protecting civil liberties would become a theme throughout the hearings. Representative Sue Myrick opened the inquiry with a line of questioning aimed at understanding how the FBI has been “outreaching potentially radical communities,” Director Mueller responded that most of the leads, in terms of preventing terrorist acts, have come from the Muslim-American community. Here Mueller alluded to the Attorney General’s Guidelines on Domestic Investigations Operations (DIOGs), which would be brought up anytime the issue of civil liberties was broached. This was, perhaps, the most striking observation from the hearings: that by and large the Committee appeared very friendly towards both directors, allowing them to simply sidestep the question of civil liberties by mentioning the DIOGs as well as statutory and constitutional directives. In fact, these responses went mostly unquestioned, free from any substantive follow-up as to how exactly the DIOGs protect civil liberties. The closest we got to any real fireworks came when Representative Schakowsky called on Director Mueller to address the recent controversy over FBI trainings. Mueller evaded the thrust of the questioning by referencing the Bureau’s commitment to protecting civil liberties and referred to these trainings as “isolated incidents,” saying that the Bureau was in the process of an internal investigation. However, this opened the door for possibly the most interesting assertion by Mueller. Chairman Mike Rogers stated, referencing back to Representative Schakowsky, that it is not the FBI’s job to target a person based on religion, Mueller agreed, stating that the Bureau must have a factual basis prior to looking at anyone. This is not necessarily true, as the Attorney General’s Guidelines do allow for what they call “assessments,” absent any factual basis. I’ll continue to discuss this issue on this blog in the coming weeks.
/ / House Intelligence Commitee hearings on domestic threat intelligence: A brief recap
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