WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities racing to find three kidnapped American soldiers in Iraq last May labored for nearly 10 hours to get legal authority for wiretaps to help in the hunt, an intelligence official told Congress on Thursday.
The top U.S. spy agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, sent Congress a timeline detailing the wiretap effort as the Bush administration makes its case to wary Democrats for a permanent expansion of its authority to eavesdrop on the foreign communications of terrorism suspects.
"In order to comply with the law, the government was required to spend valuable time obtaining an emergency authorization ... to engage in collection related to the kidnapping," Ronald Burgess, principle deputy director to McConnell, said in a letter to U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes.
Reyes, a Texas Democrat, is chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee.
Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell has been under fire from some Democrats in control of Congress who say misstatements have eroded his credibility. Some Democrats and civil liberties advocates say a temporary expansion of the eavesdropping authority passed in August threatens the rights of Americans and any permanent law needs more protections.
The timeline shows that at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on May 15, after three days of developing leads on the whereabouts of the three soldiers who went missing south of Baghdad, U.S. agencies met to discuss ways of obtaining more intelligence.
Concluding at 12:53 p.m. EDT (1653 GMT) that requirements for emergency eavesdropping approval had been met, officials spent more than four hours debating "novel and complicated issues" in the case. They spent about more two hours to obtain final approval from then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was traveling.
The wiretap began at 7:38 p.m. (2138 GMT). Authorities then had 72 hours to obtain a special court's endorsement of the emergency authority, which was granted, a U.S. official said.
McConnell told the committee last week that an outdated provision in the eavesdropping law made the approval necessary because the targeted foreign communications were carried in part on a wire inside the United States.
"We are extending Fourth Amendment (constitutional) rights to a terrorist foreigner ... who's captured U.S. soldier," he said, arguing that this was unnecessary and burdensome.
Congress temporarily broadened the law in August so such approval would no longer be required, but that legislation expires in February and U.S. President George W. Bush wants a permanent law enacted.
An al Qaeda-led group in June said it had killed the three soldiers, and showed pictured of ID cards of two of the men.