Agency Seeks Greater Surveillance Power Overseas

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007

Citing a "period of heightened threat" to the U.S. homeland, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell asked Congress to "act immediately" to make changes in current law to permit the interception of messages between terrorist targets overseas, which he said now requires burdensome court orders.

In a July 25 letter made public yesterday, McConnell told the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), that he hopes Congress "will be able to act immediately . . . to provide the legislative changes needed to protect the nation in this period of heightened threat."

At issue is a package of changes that the Bush administration wants in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to facilitate the continuation of its terrorist surveillance program. Congress has delayed amending the program pending further study.

Stepping up the pressure on lawmakers after the recently released terrorist threat assessment, McConnell said that "clarifications are urgently needed" in the law to enable the use of "our capabilities to collect foreign intelligence about foreign targets overseas without requirements imposed by an out-of-date FISA statute."

He added, "As the head of our nation's intelligence community, I am obligated to provide warning of threats of terrorist activity, and I have deep concern about the current threat situation."

The underlying question hinges on modern technology: When communications between one foreign-located source and another foreign-located source travel through a U.S.-located terminal or switch, can they be intercepted without a warrant?

The matter came up briefly Wednesday at a House hearing on the recent National Intelligence Estimate on the al-Qaeda threat to the United States. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the intelligence panel, referred to "information that we're trying to get when foreign terrorists are communicating in foreign locations."

Hoekstra said: "We have a known intelligence problem. We face a heightened terrorist risk. We have a simple fix to address one of the major FISA problems." He called on the Democrats to resolve the issue before the summer recess.

Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), another committee member, responded that the intelligence panel had held open and closed hearings. He said he believes that the act "already allows for foreign-to-foreign communications to be intercepted" but that the administration "has chosen to say that it wants a warrant nonetheless."

At the hearing, Reyes said that "there are some options we are looking at" to give McConnell what he deems necessary. "We're working very quickly and very importantly in a structured way to get to that," Reyes said.

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