Do you feel safer yet?

What's worse? The question the FBI won't answer, or the ones that it will?

Published October 24, 2007 4:34PM (EDT)

We've sat through some pretty sorry excuses for Senate hearings, but we can't remember many moments -- at least not many in which Alberto Gonzales wasn't testifying -- as frustrating as those that passed when Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden tried Tuesday to get some straight answers out of FBI Executive Assistant Director William Hulon.

The transcript from the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing may not be quite as devastating as the live audio feed we heard Tuesday, but watch anyway as Hulon refuses to engage with a legitimate question on FBI interrogation techniques -- one that was aimed at getting an answer as to whether harsher CIA techniques are actually necessary -- then is forced to admit (1) that a third (or fewer) of the nation's FBI agents and analysts have Internet access at their desks, and (2) that the FBI has hired only two of the 24 senior intelligence officers Congress authorized three years ago.

Wyden: When the public listens to the debate about the government conducting interrogations, the first thing they want to know is that they're being protected from those being interrogated who might be ticking time bombs, people who might have knowledge, for example, about an imminent terrorist attack. Now, FBI techniques do not allow for torture in interrogation. My question to you is -- and this is for you, Mr. Hulon -- do you have confidence that those FBI techniques are adequate to deal with these ticking time bomb scenarios?

Hulon: I would have to respond to that, sir, by saying the FBI has techniques that we use, which do not include torture or any type of physical abuse, and we have used those techniques and we continue to use those techniques and we've been successful with those techniques. But I can't say that in every situation --

Wyden: I understand that. But the question is, are those techniques adequate to deal with the ticking time bomb scenarios that are first and foremost on the mind of the American people?

Hulon: Those, sir, are the techniques that we have to use and those are the ones that we do use. I can't sit here and tell you which techniques would actually work with an individual. It would depend on the situation.

Wyden: Do you have confidence that the tools are adequate?

Hulon: I have confidence that we are using the authorities and the processes and tools that we have to the best of our abilities and I can't comment about the use of torture or anything else, because we don't do that.

Wyden: I think you're still not answering the question. I'm going to ask it one more time ... I still would like you to tell me -- yes or no -- whether you think the tools that you have, [that] do not allow for torture, are adequate to deal with these matters, imminent terrorist attacks, the threats that people are most concerned about. Do you think those tools are adequate?

Hulon: I can't give you an answer as to the use of torture or whether or not I think --

Wyden: That's not the question. Are the tools adequate, sir?

Hulon: The tools that we have as far as our interview techniques?

Wyden: Yes, the tools you have.

Hulon: Those are the only ones that I know.

Wyden: I won't try to ask it again. Let me move on then to a question about technology. I think it's been well discussed that there are technology problems at the agency, and I think the first thing I'd like to know is whether agents and analysts at their desks now have access to the Internet. I've read various things that there isn't universal access. I think it would be good to have that on the record. Is there universal access for agents and analysts to the Net at their desk?

Hulon: All agents and analysts do not have access at their desktop.

Wyden: Is it 80 percent, 90 percent? Can you give me a sense of what it is?

Hulon: I'd hate to be quoted at that, but it's not at the 80 or 90 percent rate.

Wyden: It's less than 80 percent?

Hulon: Yes, sir.

Wyden: When would you expect that there would be universal access for agents and analysts to the Net at their desk?

Hulon: Actually, right now, I think we have about a little over a third of the FBI personnel with access at their -- these machines, per employee, should be about another third deployed within the next year. But I can't tell you when every agent and analyst would have Internet access at their desktops. But they do have access to the Internet. We have stations within field offices that people can go to to work at, but we don't have access at everyone's desk.

Wyden: So as of today, though, about a third of the agents and analysts have access to the Net at their desk.

Hulon: I wouldn't say it would be -- I can't say that it would be a third of agents and analysts, because it could be other employees that would have it at their desktop, depending on what they do. But we have about a -- as far as a ratio, it's about a third set of machines at each -- as far as machines that we have available in relations to personnel on board.

Wyden: ... In 2004, gentlemen, the Congress gave the FBI the authority to hire 24 senior intelligence analysts, but as of last month, apparently, only a handful have been hired. I've even heard reports it had been two. Would you tell us, for the record, why the agency hasn't used those authorities?

Hulon: We actually had posted for some of those authorities and we brought some on. We actually have three posted now that we are recruiting for. Some of the delays had been actually the priorities of the ones that we want to bring on board as far as for a specific duty. Some of it, we got a little bit delayed with some budget constraints, but we are moving forward to get those positions filled.

Wyden: Is it two, though, that have actually been hired? Is that correct? Of the authority the Congress gave, it was 24. Is it correct that two have been hired?

Hulon: We have hired two, yes, sir.

Wyden: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

The chairman in question was Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who closed the hearing by saying that it had been "a very, very good hearing, without having sort of the apparent characteristics of a good hearing." He added: "I think there is enormous frustration on this panel, on the Senate Intelligence Committee, about what may or may not be happening in the FBI."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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