Despite that growing threat, Mueller noted the challenge of meeting court-ordered communications "intercepts" during FBI investigations. In some cases, communications providers are unable to provide the electronic communications sought in a court order, in part because they're not required to build or maintain the capabilities to do so.
"Critical laws covering this area have not been updated since 1994, when we moved from a copper-wire phone system to digital networks and cell phones, but of course, technology has expanded exponentially in the past 16 years," Mueller said. "We want to ensure that our ability to intercept communications is not eroded by advances in technology—technology we all rely on to communicate." You can read Mueller's speech here.
We're fast approaching a point that will determine how, and how effectively, U.S. intelligence agencies will be able to tap into the din of terrorist chatter that travels over 21st century networks. According to the New York Times, new wiretapping legislation, described as "sweeping" in scope, will be submitted to lawmakers for action next year.
The challenge is to enable the mission of the U.S. Intelligence Community without compromising the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. Clapper and Mueller both voice a strong commitment to meeting that requirement. Says Mueller, "If we safeguard our civil liberties, but leave our country vulnerable to a terrorist attack, we have lost. If we protect America from terrorism, but sacrifice civil liberties, we have also lost. We must work to strike that balance, every day, in every case."
Seeking balance in the form of legislation will get contentious. Security expert Bruce Schneier, the chief security technology officer for BT, has already denounced the White House plan, and many of his readers are similarly critical and skeptical.
The status quo carries its own risks. Clapper says the number and pace of terrorist attempts in the U.S. by al-Qaida and its affiliates were at an all-time high during the past year. Among all the tough choices, inaction may be the worst.