Intel chief pushes new spy law

By Richard Willing

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell heads to Capitol Hill this week seeking to extend the government’s power to read e-mails, listen to telephone calls and carry out other surveillance within the USA in national security cases.

Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are criticizing McConnell’s proposals. They say judges should oversee such surveillance.

Some Democrats also object to a second item on the spy chief’s wish list: immunity from lawsuits for telecom companies that helped the federal government intercept calls between U.S. and foreign intelligence targets without warrants from late 2001 until last January.

McConnell is scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. Complicating his task: a view among moderate Democrats that the self-described “apolitical” director has become an advocate for the Bush administration’s expansive views on the government’s power to spy.

McConnell is “undermining the authority of (his) office” by “appearing to play a political role,” said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence.

A 1978 law requires the nation’s intelligence services – CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and others – to get a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before eavesdropping in a national security case on a target in the USA. Overseas targets, such as two al-Qaeda operatives speaking on cellphones in Pakistan, generally could be tapped without a warrant.

Recent changes in fiber-optic technology, though, cause many foreign-to-foreign phone calls, e-mails and other electronic messages to pass through American-based switching points. Earlier this year, a foreign intelligence court judge ruled that warrants were required to intercept those calls as they passed through American lines. The warrant process, McConnell said, takes 200 hours per phone number and is unnecessarily time consuming and results in lost opportunities to collect intelligence.

This spring, with the backing of President Bush, McConnell and other intelligence officers lobbied hard for a bill that would eliminate the need for a warrant in such cases.

Last month, Congress passed a temporary fix that allows intercepts without a warrant. It applies to wire communications involving foreign parties and to calls and e-mails in which one participant is U.S.-based, provided the overseas party is the object of a national security investigation.

The law expires in February. Making it permanent is “critical” toward “ensuring the protection of our nation,” McConnell told the Senate Homeland Security Committee last week.

His spokesman, Ross Feinstein, said McConnell will bring that same message to the U.S. House this week.

Democrats are poised to offer their own legislation addressing what Pelosi called the “many deficiencies” in the law. Chief among them, says American Civil Liberties Union attorney Tim Sparapani, is the lack of “even limited court oversight” of the decision to tap a phone or read an e-mail.

Under the new law, “the court’s role has been marginalized,” Sparapani said. “Do we really want the attorney general and the director of national intelligence doing the oversight on their own decisions?”

McConnell’s own action have also complicated his mission.

In August, shortly after the temporary intelligence bill was passed, he told a reporter for the El Paso (Texas) Times that 100 or fewer Americans had been targeted for intercepts. In a letter to McConnell, House Judiciary Committee Democrats called that a “selective disclosure of classified information” designed to “rebut the concern” that warrantless surveillance will amount to a large scale “dragnet.”

Before the Senate Homeland Security Committee last week, McConnell appeared to say the temporary warrantless surveillance had helped produce the arrests this month of three Muslim men accused of planning attacks against Americans in Germany. He later issued a statement noting that intelligence in the German case was not collected under the warrantless surveillance authority.

Spokesman Feinstein said McConnell plans a written response to the House Judiciary Committee Democrats. Feinstein said McConnell would not respond to suggestions from Harman and others that he has become a Bush partisan.

In his El Paso Times interview, McConnell said it was he who first suggested to the Bush administration that surveillance law needed updating because “technology had changed.”

“I’m an apolitical figure,” McConnell said.