By Matt Stearns
WASHINGTON - The FBI didn't deliberately break the law by improperly obtaining thousands of Americans' phone, e-mail and financial records, Bureau Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
That was the good news. But then came the bad:
It happened, Mueller said, because of "mistakes, carelessness, confusion, lack of training, lack of guidance and lack of adequate oversight."
Then came this line, which senators didn't find reassuring either:
The FBI's use of inaccurate information to obtain secret search warrants? The problem was "very lengthy documents . . . with thousands of facts."
Mueller didn't mention how the bureau also managed to lose weapons and laptop computers.
He was addressing a series of recent reports of FBI bungling - making the agency seem sort of like Homer Simpson, but with guns - notably an inspector general's conclusion that the bureau had improperly used so-called "national security letters" that allow investigators to obtain private information without a judge's approval.
Reports of those abuses - which the inspector general said could number as many as 3,000 - caused an uproar several weeks ago that's since been eclipsed by another issue that has, for administration critics, far juicier political implications: the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
The FBI's problems came, Mueller said, at a time of "significant internal transformation and unprecedented worldwide threats." He added that that wasn't an excuse but rather "overarching context."
Committee members didn't appreciate the context.
"I'm not impressed by your assertion that there are thousands of facts," scoffed Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. "That's the FBI agent's job. . . . And if they're wrong on the facts, they're subjecting someone to an invasion of privacy, to a national security letter or to a search warrant that ought not to be issued."
Even reliable administration ally Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told Mueller that "any manager could say that if you don't set up a compliance system, you're going to have a problem."
Mueller, a trim, courtly pinata, may have softened the senators' swings with the tone of regret he used to describe his agency's mishaps, a tone that embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales might consider adopting when he appears before the committee April 17 to explain the U.S. attorney firings.
Among Mueller's compendium of contrition:
-The inspector general's report was "fair, effective and appropriate."
-"We at the FBI fell short in our obligations to report to Congress."
-"I am responsible for those shortcomings."
He embraced the report's recommendations, promised to discipline agents if necessary and even said he'd "welcome the committee's suggestion for additional improvements."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., lauded Mueller's approach, "which seems to be a break from many in this administration now."
That was among several references to the U.S. attorney firings, which gave Tuesday's sparsely attended hearing the feel of an undercard bout, with the big slug fests yet to come: former Justice Department chief of staff Kyle Sampson's testimony on the firings before the same panel Thursday and Gonzales' appearance April 17.
Several senators asked Mueller about the attorneys' firings, but his answers made clear that he wasn't in the loop on them.
That didn't stop Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the Democrats' designated agent provocateur on the issue. He asked Mueller how, as a former U.S. attorney himself, he would've felt if he'd been pressured on certain sensitive cases, resisted the pressure, been fired a few months later, told no reason for his firing, then learned that his former bosses were saying it was for performance reasons, though they'd never brought up such performance issues before.
"I really have to resist speculating on that set of facts," Mueller said.
"I figured you would," Schumer responded with a chuckle.