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FBI chief wins applause from ACLU

Mueller defends agency’s record on civil liberties

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WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III addressed what might have been the most hostile audience an FBI director could face Friday and won a standing ovation from more than a thousand members of the American Civil Liberties Union for his defense of his agency's counterterrorism campaign and its record on civil liberties.

It didn't hurt that he started with a joke: Mueller told the group, which has protested what it said are excesses by law enforcement in the name of national security since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, that the ACLU should thank him for helping to boost membership. The quip drew applause and laughter.

Speaking to the ACLU's first national membership meeting, Mueller said that the government was committed to protecting Americans' civil liberties as it prosecutes the war on terrorism.

"The ACLU seeks to prevent the 'tyranny of the majority' from destroying our fundamental liberties. But in fighting terrorists, we seek to prevent the 'tyranny of the minority' from destroying our fundamental way of life," Mueller said. Mueller has met privately with ACLU leaders, but Friday was the first time he addressed members of the organization publicly, ACLU spokesman Gabe Rottman said.

"The FBI will be judged not just on how effectively we disrupt and deter terrorism, but also on how we protect the civil liberties and the constitutional rights of all Americans, including those who wish to do us ill," Mueller said. "We must accomplish both, so that future generations can enjoy lives that are both safe and free."

The FBI director also won cheers when he told the crowd he did not approve of the creation of a domestic intelligence agency to spy on American citizens.

Mueller faced some tough questions from the crowd after his speech, including queries about whether the government was using the Patriot Act to snoop into private citizens' book-reading habits, and what the FBI was doing to protect the rights of immigrant detainees.

A recent Justice Department inspector general's report scolded the agency for its policy of holding detainees without any plan or schedule to release them, even if they were not charged with a crime.

Mueller said that the agency "could do things better" on the detainee question but said the FBI was committed to protecting individual rights and did not conduct politically motivated investigations.

After Mueller's speech, ACLU leaders said that they were concerned about what they called an erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act, which expanded the FBI's surveillance and search powers.

"No matter how good a speech one might give, the actions and policies are more important," said the ACLU's executive director, Anthony D. Romero.

Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU, said Mueller dodged uncomfortable questions about searches of library records and the limits of authority provided by the Patriot Act. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft asked Congress last week to give the agency even more power, something Ashcroft said was needed to prevent another terrorist assault.

"The question is, to what extent is the government taking advantage of its newfound power?" Strossen said. "Telling us, 'We're really not exercising the power' is really not an adequate answer."