Administration defends FISA powers

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President Bush’s top intelligence adviser defended the recently updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in a letter to congressional leaders released yesterday, saying the law sets strict guidelines to guard against civil liberties abuses by the government.

“These procedures have worked well for decades and eliminate from intelligence reports incidentally acquired information concerning U.S. persons that does not constitute foreign intelligence,” said Director of National IntelligenceMichael McConnell, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

The FISA bill, which was pushed through Congress in its last week before the summer recess and signed by Mr. Bush on Sunday, removes civil liberties protections for non-U.S. citizens whose phone or e-mail communications come into or through the U.S.

The White House has said the update of the bill simply takes into account the advent of e-mail and fiber optics and removes the need for a warrant to monitor terrorist suspects.

Some Democrats and civil liberties groups have raised objections to the bill, saying it will allow the government excessive powers to spy on Americans’ phone and e-mail conversations.

Mr. McConnell’s letter, however, said the government will police itself and has measures in place to prevent snooping on U.S. citizens.

“There will be intense oversight of activities conducted under the act. There are extensive training, compliance and other procedures in place at agencies to ensure our activities are conducted according to law. The relevant agencies have inspectors general staffs with the appropriate clearances, training and technical background to ensure that activities are reviewed and audited,” Mr. McConnell wrote.

Mr. Reid’s office was unmoved by Mr. McConnell’s assurances.

The letter, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley, “does not clarify anything nor does it put any concerns to rest.”

One factor that has led to distrust of the government’s promises was the disclosure earlier this year that the FBI had abused its national security letter powers, which enable the government to obtain personal records of U.S. citizens from businesses or organizations without the knowledge of the intelligence target.

The abuse was disclosed by the Justice Department’s inspector general, and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the abuse was accidental and not malicious.

Democrats, who have been critical of Mr. Gonzales on several fronts including his handling of the U.S. attorneys firings, have scoffed at the attorney general’s explanation.

An official with the Office of National Intelligence would not confirm whether the FBI will be involved in surveillance activities under FISA.

“We’re still working on a lot of implementation. A lot of that is still being worked out,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

Congressional Democrats passed a FISA update that expires after 180 days and have objected to placing the program under the attorney general for the long term.

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