"Now is not the time for us to be engaging in unilateral disarmament" on the legal weapons now available for fighting terrorism, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said. He said that some of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act have proven invaluable in fighting terrorism and aiding other investigations.
"It's important that these authorities remain available," Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Patriot Act is the post-Sept. 11 law that expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers. Most of the law is permanent, but 15 provisions will expire in December unless renewed by Congress.
During his testimony, Gonzales acknowledged for the first time that FBI agents used provisions of the Patriot Act during their investigation last year of a Portland attorney who was wrongly jailed for two weeks on suspicion of involvement in the Madrid train bombings.
The Patriot Act allows for covert searches of homes, without conventional search warrants.
Brandon Mayfield, who is a Muslim, was jailed last May after his fingerprint was incorrectly matched to one found on a bag of detonators near the scene of the March 11, 2004, Madrid attack, which killed 191 people. He was released after the FBI admitted its mistake.
"There were certain provisions of the Patriot Act that were used" in the Mayfield case, Gonzales said.
The statement was notable because the Justice Department has previously denied that the Patriot Act came into play in the Mayfield case.
In fact, Gonzales said so earlier Tuesday at the same hearing. "The Patriot Act was not used in connection with the Brandon Mayfield case," he said in response to a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
More than an hour later, after Feinstein asked another question, Gonzales said he needed to correct his earlier answer.
Mueller said sections of the law that allow intelligence and law enforcement agencies to share information are especially important.
"Experience has taught the FBI that there are no neat dividing lines that distinguish criminal, terrorist and foreign intelligence activity," Mueller said in his prepared testimony.
He also asked Congress to expand the FBI's administrative subpoena powers, which allow the bureau to obtain records without approval or a judge or grand jury.