WASHINGTON -- The fight over the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program began anew yesterday as the nation's top spy urged Congress to make permanent a law that gives intelligence agencies more latitude to monitor overseas phone calls and e-mails.
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell testified that the administration needs the expanded powers because old versions of the law forced intelligence agents to obtain time-consuming warrants for any communications that passed through U.S. networks - even if the call was between two foreign suspects.
"The old [legal] requirements prevented the intelligence community from collecting important foreign intelligence information on current terrorist threats," McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee.
Before Congress went on its summer break last month, McConnell launched a last-minute push for changes in the law following a secret court's ruling that portions of the administration's surveillance program were illegal.
Congress agreed but set the new provisions to expire in six months. Since the rushed passage of the changes, though, many Democrats have had second thoughts and now believe the new provisions violate long-held privacy protections for U.S. citizens.
"The right to privacy is too important to be sacrificed in a last-minute rush before a congressional recess, which is what happened," said Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and the Judiciary Committee chairman.
Texas Democrat Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said yesterday that he planned to introduce new legislation in a matter of weeks but added that he agrees the administration-backed changes are overly broad.
"I am concerned that, as drafted, the administration's bill went too far," Reyes said.
The administration started its efforts to get the law renewed in earnest yesterday. In addition to McConnell's testimony, the White House made its own pitch for reauthorizing reforms in the law, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said the changes were essential to "closing the intelligence gap" that existed under the old law and said President Bush wants the new bill to be identical to the one passed in August.
McConnell said he did not know how many Americans have had phone conversations monitored as a result of the administration program but insisted it was "a very small number, considering that there are billions of transactions every day." He added that no one in the U.S. has been targeted without a warrant since he became director in February.
As part of his push to get the law renewed, McConnell said that in addition to a persistent threat from al-Qaida-linked terrorists, the U.S. was facing increasingly assertive spying by one-time Cold War foes Russia and China.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.