Spy chief reveals classified details about surveillance to EP Times
Spy chief reveals classified details about
By Katherine Shrader / Associated Press Writer
Article Launched: 08/22/2007 02:27:42 PM MDT
WASHINGTON -- National Intelligence Director Mike
McConnell pulled the curtain back on previously
classified details of government surveillance and of a
secretive court whose recent rulings created new
hurdles for the Bush administration as it tries to
During an interview with the El Paso Times last week,
McConnell made comments that raised eyebrows for their
frank discussion of previously classified
eavesdropping work conducted under the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA.
A transcript was posted online on Wednesday:
# McConnell confirmed for the first time that the
private sector assisted with President Bush's
warrantless surveillance program. AT&T, Verizon and
other telecommunications companies are being sued for
their cooperation. "Now if you play out the suits at
the value they're claimed, it would bankrupt these
companies," McConnell said, arguing that they deserve
immunity for their help.
# He provided new details on court rulings handed down
by the 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Court, which approves classified eavesdropping
operations and whose proceedings are almost always
entirely secret. McConnell said a ruling that went
into effect May 31 required the government to get
court warrants to monitor communications between two
foreigners if the conversation travels on a wire in
the U.S. network. Millions of calls each day do,
because of the robust nature of the U.S. systems.
# McConnell said it takes 200 hours to assemble a FISA
warrant on a single telephone number. "We're going
backwards," he said. "We couldn't keep up."
# Offering never-disclosed figures, McConnell also
revealed that fewer than 100 people inside the United
States are monitored under FISA warrants. However, he
said, thousands of people overseas are monitored.
Even as he shed new light on the classified
operations, McConnell asserted that the current debate
in Congress about whether to update the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act will cost American lives
because of all the information it revealed to
"Part of this is a classified world. The fact that
we're doing it this way means that some Americans are
going to die," he said.
McConnell was in El Paso, Texas, last week for a
conference on border security hosted by House
Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. The
spy chief joined Reyes for an interview at his local
McConnell appeared days after Congress passed a
temporary law to expand the government's ability to
monitor suspects in national security investigations
-- terrorists, spies and others -- without first
seeking court approval in certain cases. The highly
contentious measure expires in six months.
After Sept. 11, Bush authorized the terrorist
surveillance program to monitor conversations between
people in the United States and others overseas when
terrorism is suspected. Until January, no warrants
were required. But as the Democratic Congress took
over, the Bush administration decided to bring the
program under the oversight of the FISA court.
McConnell said the court initially ruled that the
program was appropriate and legitimate. But when the
ruling had to be renewed in the spring, another judge
saw the operations differently. This judge, who
McConnell did not identify, decided that the
government needed a warrant to monitor a conversation
between foreigners when the signal traveled on a wire
in the U.S. communications network.
McConnell said the government got a temporary stay on
the ruling, but it expired at the end of May. "After
the 31st of May, we were in extremis because now we
have significantly less capability," he said.
At the same time, the intelligence community was
wrapping up years of work on a National Intelligence
Estimate on threats to the homeland -- an analysis
that is considered its most comprehensive judgment. It
found the threat was increasing, McConnell noted.
Because he sees FISA as a major tool to keep
terrorists out of the country, McConnell said he
pressed Congress to change the law.
McConnell's interview raised concerns at the Justice
Department, where senior officials questioned whether
the intelligence chief had overstepped in discussing
the secret FISA court.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse referred
questions to McConnell's office, where his spokesman
Ross Feinstein declined to comment.
In a phone interview, Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra
said he never felt at liberty to discuss some of the
information that McConnell did, including the FISA
court rulings, but the executive branch gets to decide
what is classified. "What I think it tells you is how
important they believe it is to get this FISA thing
done right," said Hoekstra, the top Republican on the
House Intelligence Committee.
He said McConnell is hurt by the personal attacks on
him during the FISA recent debate. Among them,
Democrats have alleged that he negotiated in bad faith
and was too beholden to the White House.
In addition, Hoekstra said he thinks McConnell wanted
to push back on accusations that the legislation gave
the attorney general unprecedented new powers. "I
think they felt they had to become more public," he
Associated Press Writer Lara Jakes Jordan contributed
to this report.