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Bush wants permanent warrantless wiretap law

In a testimony before Congress on Thursday, J. Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, said public discussion of wiretapping policies costs American lives.

By / September 21, 2007

Politicians are once again debating the legality of the controversial "Protect America Act," which amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to allow for warrantless wiretapping. The law's Feb. 1, 2008 expiration date is approaching. President George Bush and his supporters are pushing to make the law permanent. Meanwhile, opponents are raising familiar concerns about the protection of civil liberties. On Thursday, J. Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, testified before Congress that not only was the law a necessity, but that public debate about it will cost American lives by exposing American surveillance methods to the nation's enemies. Opponents in Congress were critical of Mr. McConnell's remarks.

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On Wednesday, Bush visited the National Security Agency and called for support to make the Protect America Act a permanent law, reports the E-Commerce Times. The temporary act was rushed into law last month and allows US intelligence agencies to monitor phone conversations between US citizens calling suspected terrorists overseas.

"The threat from Al-Qaeda is not going to expire in 135 days," Bush warned during a Wednesday visit to the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Md.
"Unless the FISA reforms in the act are made permanent, our national security professionals will lose critical tools they need to protect our country," he said. "Without these tools, it'll be harder to figure out what our enemies are doing to train, recruit and infiltrate operatives in our country. Without these tools our country will be much more vulnerable to attack."

During his testimony to congress McConnell told representatives that "intelligence business is conducted in secret," and that public examination of these laws had compromised their effectiveness by exposing their inner-workings, reports the Los Angeles Times.

"It's conducted in secret for a reason," McConnell told the House Intelligence Committee. "You compromise sources and methods, and what this debate has allowed those who wish us harm to do is to understand significantly more about how we were targeting their communications."
Asked by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) if he thought that congressional questioning of the administration's intelligence program would lead to the killing of Americans, McConnell said, "Yes, ma'am, I do."
Eshoo called his assessment "a stretch."

Democrats also expressed that they want to give the administration the necessary tools to monitor foreign targets, they also want to ensure that checks and balances are maintained, reports the Congressional Quarterly. They also expressed particular concern about the portion of the law that allows for electronic surveillance of foreign terror suspects that results in warrantless wiretapping of US citizens within the country.

Panel Republicans and McConnell then tried to turn the tables on Democrats. They highlighted a case where they said spying restrictions in place prior to passage of the temporary six-month legislation had delayed for 12 hours an attempt to rescue U.S. soldiers captured by insurgents in Iraq.
The tense hearing demonstrated the frayed relations between congressional Democrats and McConnell going into the high-stakes negotiations about permanent changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA, PL 95-511).