China and Russia are spying on the United States nearly as much as they did during the Cold War, according to the top U.S. intelligence official.
Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, says in testimony prepared for a Tuesday congressional hearing that a law passed last month expanding the U.S. government’s eavesdropping power is needed to protect not just against terrorists but also against more traditional potential adversaries, such as those two Cold War foes.
“China and Russia’s foreign intelligence services are among the most aggressive in collecting against sensitive and protected U.S. systems, facilities and development projects, and their efforts are approaching Cold War levels,” McConnell says in his testimony. “Foreign intelligence information concerning the plans, activities and intentions of foreign powers and their agents is critical to protect the nation and preserve our security.”
The new law will also enable the intelligence agencies to identify “sleeper cells” of terrorists in the United States, according to McConnell’s statement to the House Judiciary Committee.
Congress last month hastily adopted the Protect America Act just before it went on summer vacation, propelled by McConnell’s warnings of a need to close a dangerous gap in U.S. intelligence law.
Some lawmakers are now having second thoughts as the complicated law — intended to make it easier for the government to intercept foreign calls and e-mails — has come under attack by civil liberties and privacy advocates who contend it gives the government broader powers than intended.
The Protect America Act allows the government to listen in, without a court order, on all communications conducted by a person reasonably believed to be outside the United States, even if an American is on one end of the conversation.
Such surveillance was generally prohibited under the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and it is one of the more controversial aspects of the new law.
But McConnell’s prepared testimony says one of the most important new powers granted by the law is the possibility of obtaining a call or e-mail “from a foreign terrorist outside the United States to a previously unknown ’sleeper’ or coconspirator inside the United States.”
While some Democrats are angling to roll back what they consider the excesses of the new law, McConnell and Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein are pushing Congress to make even more changes to FISA.
Among the changes they seek is a new definition for “electronic surveillance.” The legal definition includes not just which technologies are used to conduct the surveillance, but also whom is targeted, what communications are collected, where the target is and where the eavesdropping takes place. The definition is critical because it limits the government’s power. FISA generally requires court orders for any activity deemed to be “electronic surveillance.”