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Intelligence chiefs urge easing of spy rules

Reuters/David Morgan | July 26 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities could not track al Qaeda effectively if required to obtain court warrants before eavesdropping on telephone conversations involving U.S. callers, top intelligence officials said on Wednesday.

Three administration officials, including CIA Director Michael Hayden, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to press lawmakers to ease warrant requirements for the surveillance of al Qaeda suspects.

"Why should our laws make it more difficult to target al Qaeda communications that are most important to us -- those entering or leaving this country," Hayden said.

The four-star Air Force general set up President George W. Bush's warrantless surveillance program in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks while he was director of the National Security Agency.

The program allows the government to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without obtaining a warrant, if in pursuit of al Qaeda.

Hayden said most of the phone calls involve al Qaeda suspects overseas calling people inside the United States.

Democrats and some Republicans say the program could overstep Bush's authority as commander in chief and appears to violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. FISA requires warrants for individual eavesdropping suspects inside the United States.

But the administration officials called FISA impractical and ineffective for tracking al Qaeda, saying the law would require separate warrants for each U.S.-bound phone call placed by an overseas suspect.

"It would cause a tremendous burden," said NSA Director Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander.

"You'd be so far behind the target if you were in hot pursuit, with the number of applications that you'd have to make and the time to make those, that you'd never catch up."

Hayden backed compromise legislation between the White House and Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania that would allow a secret FISA court to review the NSA program to determine its legality.

"The chairman's bill will allow NSA to use all the tools that it has," the CIA director said.

But critics including Sen. Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat, say the compromise bill could endanger civil liberties because it allows the FISA court to approve entire surveillance programs rather than separate warrants.

"It opens a Pandora's box of all kinds of games that can be played," said Feinstein, who has been briefed on the NSA program as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Stephen Bradley, acting assistant attorney general, stressed that the program was tightly focused on militant activities.

Last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Specter's committee that Bush blocked a Justice Department investigation of the NSA program.

 

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