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Director Mueller Told Senate Panel FBI Uses Drones


On a Thursday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good Morning.

In one of his final appearances on Capitol Hill, normally media-shy FBI Director Robert Mueller made some news. Mueller, who's retiring in September, acknowledged that the FBI has started to deploy unarmed drones in the U.S. Still, he played down how often agents use those drones.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley got right to the point.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: Does the FBI own or currently use drones, and if so, for what purpose?

ROBERT MUELLER: Yes and for surveillance.

JOHNSON: FBI Director Robert Mueller has learned a thing or two about Congress after nearly a dozen years in the job. So later in his Senate Judiciary testimony, Mueller decided to elaborate.

MUELLER: Well, it's very seldom used and generally used in a particular incident where you need the capability.

JOHNSON: Incidents like the abduction of a five-year-old boy earlier this year in Alabama, where the kidnapper hid the child in an underground bunker for days. Mueller told lawmakers the bureau's developing a policy for how it uses surveillance drones.

And others pointed out that federal agents along the Southwest border have used unarmed drones for a while. It's the reach of that technology and the boom in the commercial market that worries California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein.

SENATOR: I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone, and the use of the drone, and the very few regulations that are on it today.

JOHNSON: Feinstein says she's far less concerned about a U.S. surveillance program that keeps Americans' phone records for years in a huge NSA database.

But that view is not shared by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who want to impose new restrictions on the dragnet data collection and force the Obama administration to share more details about the secret program. To which FBI director Mueller injected a note of caution.

MUELLER: Inevitably, the communications are the soft underbelly of the terrorists. They've got to communicate, and to the extent we can intercept those communications, to that extent, we can prevent terrorist attacks.

GRASSLEY: Mueller says if Congress changes the law, the FBI will abide, but he says transparency can have a price.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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