WASHINGTON – The national director of intelligence and assistant attorney general were kept on their toes Thursday as they defended the government's increased eavesdropping abilities.
Testifying before the House Select Committee on Intelligence,Michael McConnell,director of national intelligence,and Kenneth Wainstein,assistant attorney general,defended the Protect America Act,which allows the government to listen to conversations between a person in the U.S. and someone abroad. No warrant is required.
Added to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,which was created in 1978,the new act updates the definition of electronic surveillance. The new law went into effect in August and will expire in February.
Some worry it could lead to warrantless searches of homes,e-mail accounts and other personal domains.
“Our concerns are about protecting the rights of Americans,not foreigners abroad,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes,D-Texas,the committee chair. “Thus,we are concerned for the privacy rights of Americans who may be communicating with someone abroad.”
The law has allowed the government to intercept information about terrorist activities,McConnell said. If the law is allowed to expire,about 50 percent of the information now being gathered could be lost,he added.
When soldiers were kidnapped in Iraq earlier this year,it took the government about 12 hours to obtain clearance for wiretaps – something that would have happened more quickly under the new law,McConnell said.
Democratic committee members scoffed at McConnell's comment,saying the situation could be resolved in a timely manner.
“It seems ridiculous that it would take 12 hours if we've identified the target,” Rep. Rush Holt,D-N.J.,said. “There is a lot that is not being explained here.”
Reyes said the decision to begin wiretapping Iraqi communications should have been reached sooner and it's unclear if the new law would help.
“It gets back to the bureaucracy and the failure to recognize that American lives are at stake,” he said. “I don't want to leave the perception that people were standing around because of the FISA.”
A warrant had to be obtained to listen to Iraqi communications because they were being routed through communication systems in the United States,making the Fourth Amendment applicable,McConnell said.
The government has concluded that recent changes to communication systems require it to obtain warrants more often than in the past,McConnell said.
In the case of the missing soldiers,it was the terrorists who ended up being protected by the Fourth Amendment,Rep. Peter Hoekstra,R-Mich.,said.
“Since the president signed the bill,the intelligence community has succeeded in closing the intelligence gap,” he said.
Although the act allows the government to listen to conversations between people in foreign countries and U.S. citizens,a warrant still is needed to target a specific U.S. citizen,Wainstein said.
In emergencies,the government can listen to conversations for up to 72 hours and provide probable cause later. If the government doesn't have probable cause,it won't be able to continue the surveillance,he added.
It's up to Congress to ensure further changes to FISA are clear about judicial oversight,the government's powers to eavesdrop and that the government cannot conduct warrantless searches on U.S. citizens,Rep. John Tierney,D-Mass.,said.
“If the government listens to both ends of the communication,it does infringe on the privacy rights of Americans,” he said.