U.S. spies press for renewal of broad electronic surveillance law

Tue Sep 11, 2012 6:47pm EDT

* Extension of law is "top priority" for intelligence agencies

* Senate critics threaten delays over civil liberties concerns

* Secret program sorts through masses of phone calls and emails

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON, Sept 11 (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence officials made a public plea on Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, for quick congressional action to extend a sweeping but controversial U.S. electronic surveillance law.

Robert Litt, chief lawyer for the Office of Director of National Intelligence, told reporters that winning congressional approval to extend the electronic spying law was the U.S. intelligence community's "top priority."

If the law, which expires at the end of 2012, is not extended, Litt said, U.S. spy agencies would lose access to what he described as a "very, very important source of valuable intelligence information."

Relevant committees of both the House of Representatives and the Senate have approved similar, though not identical, versions of bills that would extend the surveillance law, an updated version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's version would extend it until 2017. A Senate Judiciary Committee version would extend it only until 2015.

Some congressional officials said the Obama administration was anxious to get an extension of the law approved by Congress in the next two weeks, since legislators adjourn for an election break later this month and considerable unfinished business already awaits them for a lame duck session after the Nov. 6 general election.

But at least one congressional critic of the surveillance law says he is willing to use legislative tactics to stall the bill unless the administration and other legislators agree to include stronger provisions to protect Americans' civil liberties.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he had placed a "hold" on the bill that he would not lift until the Senate considers more stringent protections against warrantless spying on Americans. "My hold is on and it will stay on," he told Reuters.

Wyden said that in correspondence with a group of senators, the Obama administration had admitted that some Americans' rights prohibiting warrantless surveillance had been violated by the spying program. He said that until loopholes in the law were plugged, he believed it should only be extended for a relatively short period.

BILL CONTAINS LOOPHOLE

In his conference call with reporters, Litt declined to discuss details of how U.S. agencies, most notably the ultra-secret National Security Agency, the electronic eavesdropping organization based at Fort Meade, Maryland, go about collecting information under the act's provisions.

The law authorizes broad electronic intelligence collection by U.S. agencies targeting what a Senate report described as "persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States." Under its provisions, several officials said, U.S. agencies do not have to obtain a court warrant to monitor communications of suspected militants or other intelligence targets who are not located in the United States.

Wyden and Democratic Senator Mark Udall alleged earlier this year that the bill contained a "loophole" that could be used "to circumvent traditional warrant protections and search for the communications of a potentially large number of Americans."

Wyden and Udall proposed an amendment that would have ordered Inspectors General at the Justice Department and National Intelligence Director's office to produce a "rough estimate" of how many Americans' communications had been inadvertently collected under the law.

On Tuesday, Litt maintained that because of the way the collection program worked, producing such an estimate would be impractical.

People familiar with the program said that it involved sifting through masses of communications between foreigners that are transmitted via servers or telecommunications links that pass physically through the United States.

One official familiar with the matter said that the only way to begin to estimate the extent to which the program might have inadvertently collected information on Americans is by looking more closely at messages that intelligence officials are not supposed to look at - because Americans are on one or both ends of the messages.

One of the main points of the law authorizing the surveillance program is that officials are not supposed to be reading or listening to message traffic involving people located in the United States unless they have warrants to do so.

Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said there ought to be a "middle ground" under which spy agencies could provide Congress with an estimate of the "magnitude" of inadvertent collection on Americans without compromising details of the system.

"Are we talking about ten, or ten million, or ten billion" inadvertently collected messages involving U.S. people, Aftergood said. But such an estimate, he said, is "what the government is refusing to provide."

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Comments (7)
2654zeno wrote:
Hitler and Stalin had the same or very simular programs to control thier citizens. Are we headed there?

Sep 11, 2012 8:44pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
We are there 2654zeno. The people who want this access(nsa,homeland security) already gave away their rights to the government when they got hired, like they care about our privacy. Drones, emails, phone monitoring, helicopters with FLIR checking our homes and buildings 24/7 don’t think they do ask a helicopter cop. My kid wont even know what rights are when he grows up. The TSA should drive us home and to work anyways to make sure we are pro-government and friendly? What gives, when do we each get a drone to follow us to see if we do break one of the 10,000 laws that are on the books. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Since 99% of us do not break any laws why not check 24/7 just be sure. Breathalyzer and drugs tests even for prescription tests also! This testing should be on all our vehicles and retrofitted so we can not start them unless clean. We should pee in a cup and give blood in order to start our cars or walk out of our homes. We must be watched, please install cameras on all streets and lamp posts and send us tickets and arrest us all. The constitution writers would be so proud of how we worked around the document they created in the name of justice? We have more people die from DUI related incidents then terrorist acts. Give us our rights back now! I would also suggest a reward for turning in our neighbors for breaking any laws including not using a turn signal. Thank you.

Sep 11, 2012 12:43am EDT  --  Report as abuse
poidog79 wrote:
ONCE AGAIN the popular press is SILENT on this issue.

I remember there was much bemoaning when bush was in office over the patriot act, and now the popular press is silent on the same issues. Grow some balls you news commentators. I refuse to call you journalists anymore because you seem to run all stories through tools that think like Carney.

The truth is we have the capability to monitor everything, and these agencies, like the NSA, indeed do. Why don’t they just come out at say it and be honest about it. They were asked a direct question from a representative of the people and they sidestepped the issue. Of course he knows how many Americans are watched, if he didn’t he should be fired. He just doesn’t what to admit what everyone in the intelligence community already knows, they do it anyway.

90% of the people in the intelligence community, i wouldn’t worry about if they wasted their time reading my emails and phone conversations (i’d only request they also read my junk mail) btw.. why aren’t they developing a better junk mail filter??? that would be nice.

i digress… my only point is we need a written law telling us how the NSA and the other 15 heavy eavesdropping agencies are going to police the 10% of their staff that misuse the data they collect. BECAUSE they do not have a reliable system to do so. So, they won’t admit what they do now, and therefore can’t ask for money to protect the data they are not admitting to collecting.

In conclusion, we have highly paid and monstrously benefited workforce of monitoring agencies that don’t want to give up their current gig of spying on dirty emails send from Americans to mail order brides or illegals telling their families they miss them and how they will wire $ back to pay next months rent. Let’s just be honest about what we are paying for, and what they ARE doing. The American people have a right to know exactly what they are doing, and how much it costs.

Sep 12, 2012 1:59am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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