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U.S. intelligence chief Mike McConnell was back on Capitol Hill today. He's been there three days in a row, trying to persuade Congress to rewrite the law governing electronic surveillance. That's the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA. McConnell says lawmakers need to move now before they leave this weekend for a month-long recess.
Meanwhile, there are new questions about the secret surveillance efforts that are supposed to be governed by FISA.
Here is NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: As far the Bush administration is concerned, updating FISA is not something that can wait.
Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): This is a top priority. It is urgent.
KELLY: White House Spokesman Tony Snow, and here's his boss.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Congress needs to act immediately to pass this bill.
KELLY: President Bush and the president's Republican allies in Congress appear to be onboard. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): There is a great sense of urgency that this legislation be passed this week. Any further delay could conceivably endanger the homeland.
KELLY: Here is why there is a sense of urgency. Intelligence director, Mike McConnell, is warning that the current law causes U.S. intelligence to miss key phone and Internet traffic.
Mr. MIKE McCONNELL (Director, National Intelligence): We are significantly burdened in capturing overseas communications of foreign terrorists planning to conduct attacks inside United States.
KELLY: Even Democrats acknowledge McConnell's warning is a powerful one, especially given a new National Intelligence Estimate that drudges al-Qaida has rebuilt and is busy plotting new attacks. And today, after months of deadlock, there were signs that a deal to update FISA may come together this week. Democrats do still have deep concerns about how much power the government should have to wiretap without a warrant obtained from the court that oversees FISA. But Democrats say they are willing to try to put in place, at least, a short-term fix.
In a statement today, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller writes, quote, "given the continued thread environment and some recent technical developments, I have become convinced that we must take some immediate, but interim step."
Naturally, Democrats are backing a different interim proposal than the administration. But, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says a compromise is in sight.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): The only question is how much involvement the attorney general have in it as compared with the FISA court itself. Other than that, I think it's fairly well worked out.
KELLY: But any question involving the attorney general, these days, turns out to be no small question. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is underfire for what some lawmakers consider misleading testimony about, among other matters, the domestic surveillance program governed by FISA. Gonzales and other senior officials have repeatedly described that program as a limited, narrowly focused effort.
Here is President Bush speaking last year.
Pres. BUSH: We're not mining or trolling to the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.
KELLY: But yesterday, intelligence chief McConnell made clear that the domestic wiretapping program is part of a much wider effort than has been publicly acknowledged. In a letter, McConnell wrote that after 9/11, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to carry out a number of intelligence activities. The letter is an attempt to square discrepancies in Gonzales' testimony. But on this front, Democrats aren't giving ground. Several are still calling for an investigation into whether the attorney general was lying.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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