WASHINGTON, The Washington Post
The FBI has placed a “substantial” number of people suspected of ties to terror under constant surveillance, sending out special teams of agents to various parts of the United States roughly every two weeks in a mission that is seriously taxing the agency’s resources, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Wednesday.
Mueller would not specify how many possible terrorists the agency is tracking, but said the bureau has been “pushed, really pushed” to keep up with them. And he acknowledged that agents have no choice but to monitor those people around the clock when they cannot be detained for immigration or other violations.
“Our biggest problem is we have people we think are terrorists. They are supporters of al-Qaida …They may have sworn jihad, they may be here in the United States legitimately and they have committed no crime,” Mueller said in a 90 minute lunch with Washington Post reporters and editors. “And what do we do for the next five years? Do we surveil them? Some action has to be taken.”
Mueller’s remarks are among the strongest government assertions that people with suspected connections to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network remain in the United States, and they reflect the FBI’s consuming race to thwart another attack. They come a little more than two weeks after a succession of Bush administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Mueller himself warned publicly about the likelihood of another strike against the United States.
Even as Mueller moves to reorganize the FBI and substantially beef up its counter-terror forces, the current solution to tracking possible terrorists is special squads — surveillance teams that the FBI has been dispatching about every other week since Sept. 11, particularly to locations where its field offices lack agents or translators to do the tedious work.
The surveillance can be done on the ground, by air or, in some cases, with court-approved wiretaps, he said.
“There are gradations of persons who we might look at and their affiliation with a terrorist,” Mueller said, explaining they could range from someone “who has called a number of a prominent terrorist overseas” to a person passing out literature in support of Osama bin Laden. “There are all gradations along that spectrum,” he said.
Mueller declined to say what kinds of leads have been developed as a result of the surveillance work.
In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks at World Trade Center and Pentagon, authorities moved against possible terror suspects by detaining more than 1,200 people on minor immigration charges, such as overstaying their visas and hundreds of others for state and local criminal offenses.
In some cases, federal prosecutors obtained material witness warrants to hold individuals suspected of having information related to the hijackings.
Mueller said officials were looking at other options to root out terror suspects, including the Alien Terrorist Removal Act, a 1996 law that permits the deportation of suspected alien terrorists by a special court, based on classified information submitted in secret. No one has been deported under the law since its enactment.
The FBI has come under intense criticism in recent weeks for mishandling clues to the Sept. 11 attacks, including a July memo from a Phoenix agent that terrorists might be training at U.S. flight schools and the arrest in August of Zacarias Moussaoui, who aroused suspicions at a Minnesota flight school. Moussaoui was subsequently indicted as a conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mueller, who took office Sept. 4, is scheduled to address those issues in testimony Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.