WASHINGTON -- FBI Director Robert Mueller yesterday urged Congress to move carefully before making any changes that might restrict the National Security Agency programs for mass collection of people's phone records and information from the Internet.
In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the FBI director said there are 10 or 12 cases in which the phone records program contributed to breaking up terrorist plots.
Mueller said communications capabilities of terrorists are their weakest link.
"If we are to prevent terrorist attacks, we have to know and be in their communications," Mueller said. "Having the ability to identify a person in the United States, one telephone number with a telephone that the intelligence community is on in Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan . . . may prevent that one attack, that Boston or that 9/11."
The FBI director argued for the continued use of the NSA programs.
"Are you going to take the dots off the table, make it unavailable to you when you're trying to prevent the next terrorist attack? That's a question for Congress," Mueller said.
Mueller made the comments in response to questions from the Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Mueller also said the FBI uses drones for surveillance, but does so rarely.
He said the bureau is developing guidelines for drones and that the privacy implications of using drones are, in Mueller's words, worthy of debate and legislation down the road.
Meanwhile in Berlin Wednesday, President Barack Obama, trying to tamp down concerns about government overreach, defended U.S. Internet and phone surveillance programs as narrowly targeted efforts that have saved lives and thwarted at least 50 terror threats.
"This is not a situation in which we are rifling through ordinary emails" of huge numbers of citizens in the United States or elsewhere, the president declared during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He called it as a "circumscribed, narrow" surveillance program.
"Lives have been saved," Obama said, adding that the program has been closely supervised by the courts to ensure that any encroachment of privacy is strictly limited.
Merkel, for her part, said it was important to continue debate about how to strike "an equitable balance" between providing security and protecting personal freedoms. "There has to be proportionality," she said.