FBI director James Comey warned that a major change proposed by President Obama's surveillance review panel would make terrorism probes more unwieldy if new rules forced them to wait for judicial approval, Politico reported.
He said that asking a judge for a national security letter that, for instance, gives them the authority to track down an internet user who posted a threat to carry out a terrorist attack could be stymied by days or weeks, even if more judges were added to the court.
"The national security letter is not only among the most highly regulated things the FBI does, but a very important building block tool of our national security investigations," Comey told a group of reporters at FBI headquarters on Wednesday, Politico reported.
"What worries me about their suggestion that we impose a judicial procedure on NSLs is that it would actually make it harder for us to do national security investigations than bank fraud investigations."
"Being able to do it in a reasonably expeditious way is really important to our investigations. So one of my worries about the proposal in the review group is it would add or introduce a delay," he said. "We ought to be able to work something out that adopts a nondisclosure regime that is more acceptable to a broader array of folks than the one we have now," he said.
He acknowledged that several years ago, the FBI process for issuing NSL letters was too lax. "No doubt the process for NSLs was broken in some ways six years ago or longer. It is not broken today. And so I don’t know why we would make national security investigations harder in that respect than criminal investigations," he said.
However, the director agreed with the review panel's view that the national security letters would no longer permanently bar a person of interest from discussing the order with anyone other than legal counsel.
Comey also addressed the debate over whether NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a "whistleblower" or "hero."
"Whistleblowers are really important and it’s the reason we have devised and protect avenues within all the government, including the intelligence community to make sure people can report fraud, waste and abuse—very, very important," Comey said. "I hear people talk about 'whistleblower hero' for revealing—I say for revealing what?"
The director said the controversial phone call-tracking database on the American people and foreign leaders that Snowden revealed was overseen by all three branches of government. "It’s hard for me to look at that situation and say that’s anything but the government operating as it should."
Comey did agree with other oversight measures proposed by the Obama's surveillance review group.
He also said in general terms he was in favor of putting telephone call metadata back in the hands of telephone companies, another review panel recommendation.
"You all know my history. I am a huge fan of the rule of law. I've never been someone who's a scaremonger, crying wolf, but I’m someone who’s in a very serious business and so I want to ensure that when we discuss the tools like 215," a section of the Patriot Act which vastly expands the FBI's power to spy on ordinary people living in the United States, "that we understand the benefits and the tradeoffs on the other side....The government saying it's a useful tool should not be the end of the conversation, as with all the other tools. There's lot of things that might be useful but you got to understand at what cost —at what cost to other things we care about," he said.
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