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FBI director: phone surveillance data can only be used for terror investigations

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FBI director Robert Mueller
FBI director Robert Mueller

The director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Robert Mueller, told lawmakers in a hearing today that the data collected through its and the NSA's mass surveillance of all Verizon customers, and other US phone carriers, can only be used in FBI investigations into terror plots, not for separate domestic criminal investigations.

"Is it true that this data can be used for things other than terrorism?" asked Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA). "No," Mueller answered immediately. "You can't use it for criminal investigations?" Scott asked. "No," Mueller said again. "Is it solely for terrorism or can it be used for something else?" Scott asked again. "Terrorism," Mueller responded.

"Is it solely for terrorism or can it be used for something else?"

"If you tripped over some other things, like you noticed a crime, could you use it in a criminal prosecution?" Scott asked. "No, not that I'm aware of," Mueller said. "The strictures are that you cannot. Now there may be a way that you could go to the court if there was an egregious crime...but the court would have to authorize it."

"The program is set up for a very limited purpose."

Muller later revealed more information on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the law that allows the FBI and NSA to get secret court orders requiring companies to hand over all phone call metadata on all customers — which includes phone numbers of callers, length of calls and device and customer ID numbers, but not audio content. One of these court orders was leaked to The Guardian last week, publicly revealing that the FBI and NSA were obtaining all Verizon phone metadata from all customers, not just for select suspects. "If you're talking about 215, says 'reasonable, articulable, suspicion,' that any particular telephone number was associated with al-Qaeda or a foreign power. It's very simple." Intelligence officials have previously said that the phone data they collect is kept in a "secure environment" and can only be queried for specific suspects with a court order.

Congressman Mel Watt (D-NC) also asked Mueller to explain the FBI's and court's definitions of "terrorism," in the case of gathering phone metadata. "The statue is fairly specific that it's attributable to 'terrorism.' And the traditional, what one would understand to be terrorism — al-Qaeda and its like, and other terrorist groups that are specifically mentioned." Mueller said, continuing: "The program is set up for a very limited purpose, in a limited objective, and that is to identify individuals in the United States who are using a telephone for terrorist activities and to draw that network." Mueller also added that if the FBI wanted to use any information gathered from phone records for purposes beyond terrorism, it would have to go back to the court and get approval.