By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Law enforcement officials are targeting fewer than 100 people in the United States for secret court-approved wiretaps aimed at disrupting terrorist networks, the top U.S. intelligence official said in an interview published yesterday.
The relatively low number of those under surveillance in this country stands in contrast with "thousands" of people overseas whose calls and e-mails are monitored for possible links to terrorism, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said.
"If a terrorist calls in and it's another terrorist, I think the American public would want us to do surveillance of that U.S. person," he told the El Paso Times. The newspaper released a transcript of the Aug. 14 interview yesterday.
Previously, few details about the scope of the U.S.-based surveillance program had been made public.
McConnell made the revelation while visiting El Paso last week for a conference on border security. In an interview with the newspaper, he attempted to explain the distinction between court-sanctioned surveillance of Americans and the kind of warrantless surveillance that U.S. officials can now conduct under legislation signed into law by President Bush earlier this month.
The new law allows expanded, warrantless eavesdropping on foreigners' calls and e-mails to people in the United States, as long as the Americans involved are not considered targets of the investigation.
If the U.S. recipient of a call turns out to be a terrorism suspect, law enforcement officials would "just get a warrant," McConnell said. He described the number of such cases as "manageable."
"On the U.S. persons side, it's 100 or less," he said. "And then, the foreign side -- it's in the thousands."
A spokesman for McConnell's office declined to comment on the characterization.
Later, addressing a question about security along the U.S.-Mexico border, McConnell said that people linked to terrorist groups had sought to enter the United States from the south, but "not in great numbers."
Referring to the southwestern border, he said: "Would they use it as a path, given it was available to them? In time they will."
He said that a "significant number" of Iraqis have been smuggled across the border in the past year. A spokesman for McConnell clarified that the Iraqis were asylum-seekers, who have been apprehended at border crossings in increasing numbers. So far this year, 178 Iraqis seeking asylum have been detained along the southern border; 16 were captured while trying to sneak into the United States, the spokesman said.