Whopper of the Week: Robert Mueller

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Aug. 10 2001 2:25 PM

Whopper of the Week: Robert Mueller

"Sen. Maria Cantwell: I don't know if you saw [the July 30] New York Times article about the organized crime case and the concerns about privacy there, but one of the issues that has been raised is what the new process has been in which the FBI undertook the investigation in this case against Mr. Scarfo's business. And basically the FBI has used a new key logger system that is calling into question--and I guess I would frame this in the perspective of this is the second time we've seen in a court case the violation of privacy.

"In fact, Justice Scalia was quoted in the article basically saying, What limits are upon this power of technology to shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy? and that the court has to confront this fundamental issue.

"So my question is, are you going to make available the information about how this key logger technology worked?

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"FBI Nominee [since confirmed] Robert Mueller: I'm not familiar with that new technology [italics Chatterbox's], have not had occasion to use it in our district. I read the same article that the senator read, with interest, because it was the first I'd ever heard if it [italics Chatterbox's]. Until I know more about it, I really don't think I can commit one way or the other.

"I do believe when there are advances in technology that it is important to balance the privacy interests affected with the investigative take that you might get from that technology. I'm not familiar with the circumstances of this case, and I'm not familiar with the technology
[italics Chatterbox's]."

--Transcript of Mueller's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, July 31.

"TheCERTCoordinationCenterwishes to thank Robert S. Mueller III, Scott Charney and Marty Stansell-Gamm from the United States Department of Justice for their help in preparing this Advisory."

--Note at the bottom of a 1992 memo, last revised in 1997, explaining the FBI's views of what the law does and doesn't allow with regard to "keystroke logging." First reported by Thomas C. Greenein The Register, a U.K.-based infotech publication.

Commentary: It's possible that when Mueller said he was "not familiar with that new technology," he was referring to the particular key logger technology described in the July 30 Times piece cited by Cantwell. (The Times article, written by John Schwartz, relates how the FBI used key logging to nab Nicodemo Scarfo Jr., who's been indicted for running gambling and loan-sharking operations for the Gambino family.) The Times story notes the FBI's refusal to "say whether the system was a hardware device or purely software." Conceivably, Mueller was merely trying to convey that he didn't know, in this instance, which it was. But if that were true, why wouldn't Mueller say, "Although I know a bit about key logger technology, I'm not familiar with whatever specific device was used in the Scarfo case"? It seems more likely that Mueller, who was surely aware that the judge in the Scarfo trial is trying to compel the FBI to reveal details about its key logger system, was deliberately playing dumb on the entire subject of key logging.

Got a whopper? Send it to chatterbox@slate.com. To be considered, an entry must be an unambiguously false statement paired with an unambiguous refutation, and both must be derived from some appropriately reliable public source. Preference will be given to newspapers and other documents that Chatterbox can link to online.

Aug. 3, 2001: Barbara Olson

July 27, 2001: Jeffrey Archer

July 20, 2001: George W. Bush

July 13, 2001: George W. Bush

July 6, 2001: Sumner Redstone

June 29, 2001: David Brock

June 22, 2001: Edmund Morris

June 15, 2001: George W. Bush

June 8, 2001: Nepali Prince Regent (subsequently, King) Gyanendra

June 1, 2001: Mary McGrory

May 25, 2001: Ari Fleischer

May 18, 2001: York, Pa., Mayor Charles Robertson

May 11, 2001: Ted Olson

May 4, 2001: Rear Admiral Craig Quigley

April 27, 2001: Ben Affleck

April 20, 2001: South Carolina state legislator Chip Limehouse

April 13, 2001: Gray Davis

April 6, 2001: Sumner Redstone

March 30, 2001: Spencer Abraham

March 23, 2001: George W. Bush, Rep. Jennifer Dunn, and/or the Treasury Department

March 16, 2001: George W. Bush

March 9, 2001: Russ Freyman, spokesman, National Association of Manufacturers

March 2, 2001: Paul O'Neill

Feb. 23, 2001: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton

Feb. 16, 2001: Oscar spokesman John Pavlik

Feb. 9, 2001: Lynne Cheney

Feb. 2, 2001: Bobby Thomson

Jan. 26, 2001: Denise Rich