By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged Wednesday thatthe agency has deployed drones to conduct surveillance in the U.S., andthat the bureau was developing guidelines for their future lawenforcement use.
Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee thatthe unmanned aerial vehicles, whose use by law enforcement has raisedquestions from privacy advocates and civil liberties groups, aredeployed in "a very minimal way and very seldom.''
"Our footprint is very small,'' the director said. "We have very few.''
Respondingto questions posed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Mueller said hewould provide additional information to the panel about how informationand images collected during the surveillance operations are used andstored. But, he asserted, drone use was "narrowly focused on particularcases and particular needs.''
The bureau's use of thecontroversial tool was one of several issues - from the NationalSecurity Agency's secret phone and Internet tracking programs to acriminal investigation of the IRS - the director addressed in what isexpected to be his final appearance before the committee. His termexpires in September.
Mueller defended the NSA programs, recentlydisclosed by former defense contractor Edward Snowden, saying that boththe phone and Internet tracking systems were vital to nationalsecurity.
"Communications are the soft underbelly of terrorist(operations),'' Mueller said. "If that goes dark on us, we will besitting waiting for the next attack.''
On Tuesday, NSA DirectorKeith Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee that the programshave helped thwart more than 50 terrorist threats worldwide, includingmore than 10 targeting the U.S.
Addressing allegations that theIRS had targeted conservative groups for closer scrutiny, Mueller saidthat more than a dozen agents have been dispatched to the criminalinvestigation.
Responding to one lawmaker's criticisms about thepace of the inquiry, Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee that"there is a sense of urgency with this.''
"I can tell you it's not languishing,'' Mueller said.
Sen.Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., urged a quicker response, saying that he knew ofno potential victims who had been questioned by federal investigators.
"I think that's pretty slow,'' Sessions said. "It seems to me that you are running behind here.''