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US Intelligence Chief Appeals to Congress on Surveillance Powers

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, has urged lawmakers not to weaken powers Congress approved in August expanding government capabilities conduct electronic eavesdropping to prevent future terrorist attacks. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

Before leaving Washington in August for its summer break, Congress approved what is called the Protect America Act.

Passed with bipartisan margins in the House and Senate, it came after an intense Bush administration campaign to revise existing law from 1978 called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

President Bush, and his intelligence director Mike McConnell, said that under FISA serious gaps in foreign intelligence gathering had developed due to technological changes, making the U.S. more vulnerable to attack.

The changes allow monitoring, without a court order, of communications by a person authorities reasonably believe to be outside the United States, even if an American is on one end of the conversation, as long the American is not the target of the surveillance.

Although many lawmakers were uncomfortable voting for the administration-crafted revisions, they approved them, but only for six months.

House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers calls the administration-crafted measure too broad, asserting it gives the government too much power. "It permits the government to intercept any and all electronic communications from U.S. citizens to anyone even thought to be abroad at the time. This would include reporters, elected officials and political enemies of the administration, for example," he said.

Conyers and other Democrats assert that the temporary measure could lead to privacy intrusions, involving business records, library files and personal mail, with the government having only to demonstrate that a suspected terrorist abroad is involved.

McConnell sought to allay such concerns, saying the changes have already helped close what he calls critical foreign intelligence gaps, adding that the threats terrorist groups pose to the United States are very real. "Globalization trends and technology continue to enable even small groups of alienated people to find and connect with one another, justify and intensify their anger, and mobilize resources for attack, all without requiring centralized terrorist organization training or a leader. This is a threat we face today and one that our intelligence community is challenged to counter," he said.

Between now and February when the Protect America Act expires, more hard negotiations can be expected on additional provisions sought by the administration.

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein urges lawmakers to make changes approved so far permanent, and to enact additional revisions.

He also sought to ease concerns that approvals of surveillance directed at foreign individuals could open Americans to eavesdropping and privacy issues. "We cannot under the statute, that is not allowed. When we direct surveillance at somebody in the United States under FISA, under the pre-existing definitions of FISA, we cannot do that without a court order and we will not do it," he said.

Wainstein says the administration is open to suggestions from members of Congress on additional changes before the Protect America Act comes up re-authorization next February, but suggests that changes should not be what he calls limiting in nature.