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US intelligence chief pushes Congress for more changes to surveillance law

[JURIST] US Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell [official website] pushed for new and permanent changes to a recently passed temporary surveillance law in a statement [PDF text] to the House Judiciary Committee [official website] Tuesday. The Protect America Act 2007 [S 1927 materials], passed [JURIST report] by Congress in August, gives the Executive Branch expanded surveillance authority for a period of six months while Congress works on long-term legislation to "modernize" the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) [EFF Q&A] by establishing judicial oversight of domestic wiretapping. McConnell urged the panel to permanently update FISA to include the provisions of the Protect America Act, including changing the definition of electronic surveillance to exclude limitations on governmental surveillance "directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States." He pointed to threats both from terrorist groups and from China and Russia, nations which he says are spying on US activities and assets nearly at "Cold War levels." McConnell also proposed granting liability protection to members of the private sector connected to government anti-terror work, including telecommunications companies that aided government surveillance without a court order. McConnell made a similar push last week at a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee [JURIST report].

Last week US Assistant Attorney General Kenneth L. Wainstein [official profile], head of the US Department of Justice's National Security Division (NSD), sent a letter to Congress [JURIST report] stating that the Protect America Act will not allow government authorities to conduct warrantless domestic searches. Wainstein reiterated the Bush administration's position that the new legislation, which "could be read to authorize the collection of business records of individuals in the United States," will not be used for such surveillance. The Center of Constitutional Rights [advocacy website] filed a legal challenge to the law, contending it violates the Fourth Amendment [JURIST report] because it removes judicial oversight for spying and "leaves it to the executive branch to monitor itself." McConnell told the Judiciary Committee that the executive branch is "committed to conducting meaningful oversight of the authorities provided by the Protect America Act," through monitoring from internal review, outside agencies, the FISA court, and the Congress and its committees. AP has more.

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