July 26, 2006

Intelligence chiefs urge easing of spy rules

By David Morgan

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

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

Gonzales said the president refused to give the Justice
Department's Office of Professional Responsibility access to
the classified program. The office announced in May it was
unable to conduct an investigation into the role department
lawyers had in developing the eavesdropping program.