Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged Wednesday that the agency has deployed drones to conduct surveillance in the U.S., and that the bureau was developing guidelines for their future law enforcement use.
Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the unmanned aerial vehicles, whose use by law enforcement has raised questions from privacy advocates and civil liberties groups, are deployed in "a very minimal way and very seldom.''
"Our footprint is very small,'' the director said. "We have very few.''
Responding to questions posed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Mueller said he would provide additional information to the panel about how information and images collected during the surveillance operations are used and stored. But, he asserted, drone use was "narrowly focused on particular cases and particular needs.''
The bureau's use of the controversial tool was one of several issues - from the National Security Agency's secret phone and Internet tracking programs to a criminal investigation of the IRS - the director addressed in what is expected to be his final appearance before the committee. His term expires in September.
Mueller defended the NSA programs, recently disclosed by former defense contractor Edward Snowden, saying that both the phone and Internet tracking systems were vital to national security.
"Communications are the soft underbelly of terrorist (operations),'' Mueller said. "If that goes dark on us, we will be sitting waiting for the next attack.''
On Tuesday, NSA Director Keith Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee that the programs have helped thwart more than 50 terrorist threats worldwide, including more than 10 targeting the U.S.
Addressing allegations that the IRS had targeted conservative groups for closer scrutiny, Mueller said that more than a dozen agents have been dispatched to the criminal investigation.
Responding to one lawmaker's criticisms about the pace 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 of no 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.''