WASHINGTON – National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell pulled the curtain back on previously classified details of government surveillance and of a secretive court whose recent rulings created new hurdles for the Bush administration as it tries to prevent terrorism.
McConnell's comments — made in an interview with the El Paso (Texas) Times last week and posted as a transcript on the newspaper's Web site Wednesday — raised eyebrows for their frank discussion of previously classified eavesdropping work conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA. Among the disclosures:
— McConnell confirmed for the first time that the private sector assisted with President Bush's warrantless surveillance program. AT&T, Verizon and other telecommunications companies are being sued for their cooperation. "Now if you play out the suits at the value they're claimed, it would bankrupt these companies," McConnell said, arguing that they deserve immunity for their help.
— He provided new details on court rulings handed down by the 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves classified eavesdropping operations and whose proceedings are almost always entirely secret. McConnell said a ruling that went into effect May 31 required the government to get court warrants to monitor communications between two foreigners if the conversation travels on a wire in the U.S. network. Millions of calls each day do, because of the robust nature of the U.S. systems.
— McConnell said it takes 200 hours to assemble a FISA warrant on a single telephone number. "We're going backwards," he said. "We couldn't keep up."
— Offering never-disclosed figures, McConnell also revealed that fewer than 100 people inside the United States are monitored under FISA warrants. However, he said, thousands of people overseas are monitored.
McConnell's comments were a dramatic departure from the government's normally tight-lipped approach to disclosing any information about how it spies on electronic communications — some of its most sensitive and costly work. The FISA court's activities are particularly protected.
Even as he shed new light on the classified operations, McConnell asserted that the current debate in Congress about whether to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will cost American lives because of all the information it revealed to terrorists.
"Part of this is a classified world. The fact that we're doing it this way means that some Americans are going to die," he said.
McConnell was in El Paso last week for a conference on border security hosted by House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. The spy chief joined Reyes for an interview with his local paper.
At the end of the interview, McConnell cautioned reporter Chris Roberts that he should consider whether enemies of the U.S. could gain from the information he just shared in the interview, Roberts said. McConnell left it to the paper to decide what to publish.
"I don't believe it damaged national security or endangered any of our people," said El Paso Times Executive Editor Dionicio Flores.
McConnell appeared days after Congress passed a temporary law to expand the government's ability to monitor suspects in national security investigations — terrorists, spies and others — without first seeking court approval in certain cases. The highly contentious measure expires in six months.
After Sept. 11, Bush authorized the terrorist surveillance program to monitor conversations between people in the United States and others overseas when terrorism is suspected. Until January, no warrants were required. But as the Democratic Congress took over, the Bush administration decided to bring the program under the oversight of the FISA court.
McConnell said the court initially ruled that the program was appropriate and legitimate. But when the ruling had to be renewed in the spring, another judge saw the operations differently. This judge, who McConnell did not identify, decided that the government needed a warrant to monitor a conversation between foreigners when the signal traveled on a wire in the U.S. communications network.
McConnell said the government got a temporary stay on the ruling, but it expired at the end of May. "After the 31st of May, we were in extremis because now we have significantly less capability," he said.
At the same time, the intelligence community was wrapping up years of work on a National Intelligence Estimate on threats to the homeland — an analysis that is considered its most comprehensive judgment. It found the threat was increasing, McConnell noted.
Because he sees FISA as a major tool to keep terrorists out of the country, McConnell said he pressed Congress to change the law.
McConnell's interview raised concerns at the Justice Department, where senior officials questioned whether the intelligence chief had overstepped in discussing the secret FISA court.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse referred questions to McConnell's office, where his spokesman Ross Feinstein declined to comment.
In a phone interview, Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra said he never felt at liberty to discuss some of the information that McConnell did, including the FISA court rulings, but the executive branch gets to decide what is classified. "What I think it tells you is how important they believe it is to get this FISA thing done right," said Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
He said McConnell is hurt by the personal attacks on him during the FISA recent debate. Among them, Democrats have alleged that he negotiated in bad faith and was too beholden to the White House.
In addition, Hoekstra said he thinks McConnell wanted to push back on accusations that the legislation gave the attorney general unprecedented new powers. "I think they felt they had to become more public," he said.