The fight over the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program began anew Tuesday as the nation’s top spy urged Congress to make permanent the law that gives intelligence agencies more latitude to monitor overseas phone calls and e-mails.
Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell testified that the administration needed the expanded powers because old versions of the law required intelligence agents to obtain time-consuming warrants for any communication that passed through U.S. networks -- even if the call was between two foreign suspects.
“The old [legal] requirements prevented the intelligence community from collecting important foreign intelligence information on current terrorist threats,” McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee.
Before Congress went on its summer break last month, McConnell pushed for last-minute changes in the law after a secret court ruled that portions of the administration’s surveillance program were illegal.
Congress agreed to the new provisions, but set them to expire in six months. Since the rushed passage, however, many Democrats have had second thoughts and now believe the new provisions violate long-held privacy protections for U.S. citizens.
“The right to privacy is too important to be sacrificed in a last-minute rush before a congressional recess, which is what happened,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the Judiciary Committee chairman.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that he planned to introduce legislation in a matter of weeks. “I am concerned that, as drafted, the administration’s bill went too far,” Reyes said. “It contains insufficient protections for Americans who will have their phone calls listened to and [e-mails] read under this broad authority.”
The administration started its efforts to get the law renewed in earnest Tuesday. In addition to McConnell’s testimony, the White House made its own pitch for reauthorizing the current Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said the changes were essential to “closing the intelligence gap” that existed under the old law and said President Bush wanted the new bill to be identical to the one passed in August.
“He believes that the law should be made permanent, because he doesn’t believe, as no one should, that Al Qaeda works on a six-month deadline structure,” Perino said.
McConnell said he did not know how many Americans had had phone conversations monitored as a result of the program, but said it was “a very small number, considering that there are billions of transactions every day.” He added that no one in the United States had been targeted without a warrant since he became director in February.
As part of his push to get the law renewed, McConnell said that in addition to a persistent threat from Al Qaeda-linked terrorists, the nation was facing increasingly assertive spying by Russia and China.
“China and Russia’s foreign intelligence services are among the most aggressive in collecting against sensitive and protected U.S. systems, facilities and development projects,” McConnell said in his written testimony. “Their efforts are approaching Cold War levels.”
It was clear, however, from remarks by Conyers and Reyes that the FISA debate could become even more heated than before the congressional recess, with some Democrats feeling they were unfairly pressured into passing a law they did not fully support.
In addition, it appeared that McConnell lost credibility with congressional Democrats since last month’s battle over changes in the FISA law. Democrats have said they believed McConnell, who as the nation’s top intelligence official is supposed to remain out of political debates, was improperly influenced by the Bush administration during the August negotiations.
Democratic leaders accused McConnell of reneging on compromise language they had agreed to at the last minute and of succumbing to White House pressure. Conyers raised the accusations again at Tuesday’s hearing, asking McConnell why his “attitude changed 180 degrees” after talking to the White House.
McConnell said he had not changed his position and that the negotiations were mischaracterized in the media. “I wasn’t using the press to characterize it,” Conyers shot back. “I was using what you told me.”
Congressional Democrats were also displeased with McConnell’s decision late last month to disclose once-classified aspects of the controversial wiretapping program -- including the fact that about 100 people in the United States are under surveillance by the nation’s spy services -- in an interview with a small Texas newspaper.
“When does it become declassified?” asked Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.). “Is that when you just decide on the spot to blurt it out to a reporter?”