WASHINGTON – A top Democrat and the national director of intelligence clashed Tuesday about how far the government can go when spying on U.S. citizens and foreigners.
The ability to listen to conversations between a person in the U.S. and someone abroad without first obtaining a warrant increases America's security,said Michael McConnell,director of national intelligence,before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“In taking up this post,it became clear to me our foreign intelligence capabilities were being degraded,” he said in defense of the Protect America Act (PAA),which went into effect in August and increases the U.S.'s eavesdropping abilities.
Sen. Patrick Leahy,chair of the committee,took issue with McConnell's statement,saying Congress needs to safeguard the rights of U.S. citizens.
He added that McConnell couldn't get his story straight when asked specific questions about the PAA in previous Congressional hearings. In that testimony,McConnell attributed a foiled terror plot to the PAA. That statement turned out to be inaccurate,because the plot was discovered before the PAA went into effect.
“I have concerns about some of those statements in those hearings,” said Leahy,D-Vt.
Testimony about the PAA may have been confused with comments about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,or FISA,which the PAA amends,McConnell said.
Because FISA was written in 1978,it doesn't include an updated definition of electronic surveillance,which inhibits the government's ability to collect communications among terrorists,McConnell said. The PAA contains an updated definition of electronic surveillance,making it easier to spy on terrorist activity,he added.
Pushed through before Congress broke for its August recess,the PAA has some Congressional leaders concerned it could allow warrantless searches of American homes,e-mail accounts and phone conversations.
“It's really vital that we not wait until the last minute to make another hasty decision,” said Sen. Arlen Specter,R-Pa.,of the PAA,which expires in February.
Under the law,if an American citizen is abroad and calls the United States,that conversation can be monitored,Leahy said,adding that there needs to be more government oversight for that process.
“It does not ever require the government to have its own internal procedures,” he said. “The Protect America Act contains language that goes far beyond what the administration has said it needed.”
Sen. Ted Kennedy,D-Mass.,said partisan differences must be put aside to revise the law,noting that Democrats and Republicans came together to create FISA in 1978.
But some on the committee see the PAA in its current form as a necessary tool to fight terrorism.
“All you are asking for is the ability to protect the people in this country,” Sen. Orrin Hatch,R-Utah,said.
The PAA,which expires in February,will be amended by Congress in the coming months. Some members have said they want to ensure there are no warrantless searches on Americans and unchecked government powers.
“Congress has to be careful not to authorize activities we don't want conducted,” Sen. Russ Feingold,D-Wis.,said.