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FBI Chief Faces Tough Questions from Congress about Abuses in Data Collection

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is vowing reforms in the wake of an internal report that revealed the agency abused its powers in obtaining personal information during investigations of suspected terrorists. Robert Mueller made his comments to skeptical lawmakers Tuesday, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

FBI Director Mueller faced tough questions from both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee over a government inspector general's report concluding that the agency misused documents known as national security letters to obtain private information about people without getting prior approval from a judge.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is the top Republican on the committee:

"The question emerging is whether the FBI is up to the enormous task that we have asked it to perform," he said. " Every time we turn around, there is another serious failure on the part of the bureau."

Specter proposed that Congress consider establishing a separate domestic intelligence agency like Britain's MI-5.

The national security letters are used to obtain telephone, e-mail and financial records in terrorism investigations. Controls over how the letters are used were eased under the Patriot Act, passed by Congress after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States to strengthen the government's ability to pursue terrorists.

In light of the inspector general's report, the Judiciary Committee chairman, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said the time has come to consider whether Congress granted the government too much power.

"We are going to be reexamining the broad authorities we have granted the FBI under the Patriot Act," he said.

But FBI Director Mueller urged lawmakers not to amend the law.

"It would handcuff us and inhibit us from doing the kind of investigation necessary to thwart terrorist attacks," he said.

Mueller said he has begun to correct the problems with the way the agency collects personal data and has ordered an audit to determine whether any agents should be disciplined.

At a House of Representatives hearing last week, lawmakers warned the FBI that it could lose its expanded surveillance authority if the agency fails to correct its mistakes.