Rep. Reyes talks about surveillance rule changes
By Chris Roberts / El Paso Times
Article Launched: 09/21/2007 02:47:09 PM MDT
Changes to a foreign surveillance act some say gives
the Bush administration unchecked power to spy on U.S.
citizens are now being considered by the House
Intelligence Committee, the committee's chairman said
In about two weeks, staff will make recommendations
for changes to the Protect America Act, which was
signed by President Bush in August, said Rep.
Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, the committee chairman.
Supporters of the act say it provides the proper
protections to citizens' civil rights while making it
easier to gather information on foreign terrorists who
are plotting to attack the United States with the
intention of creating mass casualties.
Reyes said the legislation "alters the precious
balance between liberty and security in an unnecessary
and dangerous way," at the start of a Thursday hearing
in Washington, D.C. It was the last in a four-month
stretch of hearings that included testimony from such
people as former attorneys general John Ashcroft and
Reyes said the administration is essentially asking
the U.S. public to trust that it won't abuse the power
that was granted in the act. It requires very little
outside oversight of actual surveillance, Reyes said.
Administration officials have pointed to Justice
Department opinions and presidential executive orders
they say set a framework that will protect citizens'
right to privacy.
But those opinions and orders can quickly and
unilaterally be changed, Reyes said. They don't "have
to notify Congress, so it can be secretly done," he
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, who
testified to the committee on Thursday, asked Congress
to consider providing even broader powers, allowing
more administration officials to sign foreign
surveillance certifications and extending the time
allowed between the initiation of surveillance and the
need to get court approval from 72 hours to one week.
Surveillance of communication from one foreign person
to another requires no court action.
McConnell also reiterated his opinion that using a
technique called "reverse targeting" is illegal. He
was referring to a practice - which some say is
technically allowed by the act - that targets a
foreign person but is actually aimed at getting
information on a person contacted within the United
States. He said the technique would be "ineffective"
because it would restrict the intelligence community's
ability to obtain the full range of information on
that U.S. person.
Regarding oversight of surveillance activity,
McConnell said in his opening statement that the
administration was "committed to conducting meaningful
oversight of the authorities provided by the Protect
America Act. ... Intelligence oversight and the
responsibility to minimize U.S. person information is
deeply ingrained in (the intelligence community's)
However, Reyes said today that he is not reassured.
As an example, he points to the fact that he and
Michigan Republican Peter Hoekstra, the committee's
ranking member, asked for documents - including legal
opinions and directives from the Justice Department,
the White House and the Director National Intelligence
- four months ago and the administration still has not
Reyes also said the administration has been "overly
cautious" in the way it presents requests to the
secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, a
group of federal judges who review surveillance
requests involving people in the United States. He
said the administration, in some cases, is creating
its own problems and then blaming them on the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, that preceded
the Protect America Act.
The Protect America Act was passed as lawmakers
frantically negotiated revisions to FISA before a
recess earlier this year. There was a consensus that
certain things needed to be changed because of changes
in technology, but the White House kept rejecting
compromises, Reyes said. He said administration
officials, including McConnell, "strong-armed" the
White House's version of the act through Congress,
whose members were concerned that leaving it as it was
would make the country vulnerable.
Chris Roberts may be reached at