Intel Chief: Telecom Immunity a Security Issue The Bush administration is asking Congress to pass new legislation that would make some electronic surveillance easier and provide retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government gather intelligence. Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, talks about why the government needs this expanded authority.
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Intel Chief: Telecom Immunity a Security Issue

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Intel Chief: Telecom Immunity a Security Issue

Intel Chief: Telecom Immunity a Security Issue

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush warned earlier this week that terrorists are planning new attacks that could make the September 11th attacks, quote, "Pale by comparison." And yesterday he warned that the United States might not be able to see such an attack coming.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Failure to act would harm our ability to monitor new terrorist activities and could reopen dangerous gaps in our intelligence.

MONTAGNE: The president wants Congress to update a law that allows the U.S. to conduct surveillance, like eavesdropping, on suspected terrorists overseas. The current law expires tomorrow. The Senate has passed a bill that the president endorses. The House has not.

Joining us now is the director of national intelligence Mike McConnell. Good morning.

Mr. MIKE MCCONNELL (Director of National Intelligence): Good morning, Renee. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine. Thank you. The Bush administration says that if the Protect America Act - that's the surveillance act that's temporary at the moment - if it isn't made permanent it will tie your hands - intelligence hands - especially when it comes to new threats. But isn't it true that any surveillance underway - that does not expire even if this law isn't renewed by tomorrow?

Mr. MCCONNELL: Well, Renee, it's a very complex issue. It's true that some of the authorities would carry over to the period they were established for one year. That would put us in the August/September timeframe. However, that's not the real issue.

The issue is liability protection for the private sector. We can't do this mission without their help. Currently there is no retroactive liability protection for them. They're being sued for billions of dollars.

So the board fiduciary responsibilities cause them to be less cooperative. So in the current bill - in the current law which is on the books today - there is no protection for them. If it expired, of course, there's no protection. And even if you extended the current bill, there's no protection in a retroactive sense.


Mr. MCCONNELL: So the issue is we need the new bill passed by the Senate, which is passed by an overwhelming majority.

MONTAGNE: Let's get to that issue of protection of private telecom companies in a moment. But just - isn't the risk of missing some vital intelligence fairly remote…


MONTAGNE: …especially when weighed against America's privacy concerns?

Mr. MCCONNELL: You have to appreciate a very dynamic situation where you're attempting to detect and track a single human being who is attempting to be covert. So one thing that troubles me about this is the public debate has caused this to be - caused this to get very close to the edges of what we can say about our capabilities.

So in the attempt to track and detain or disrupt a cell, where there's a small group of people who want to carry out suicide bombs or an explosion of some sort, it's dynamic and we have to be agile and flexible to be able to track them.

MONTAGNE: Now, back to this issue of protecting or giving immunity to U.S. telecommunications companies, that has - that is a sticking point and it's stalled things in the House. But the question is if U.S. telecom companies broke the law or do break the law why shouldn't they be held responsible for that?

Mr. MCCONNELL: Well, the Senate committee that passed the bill examined in close detail all the activities and concluded there was no violation of law. And, in fact, we need their help for success to protect the country.

Also, I would highlight in the bill that passed in the Senate side there is warranted protection for U.S. person anywhere on the globe. So the assertions that we're spying on Americans with unwarranted coverage is, quite frankly, would not be true - is not true today, certainly would not be true if they passed this new bill.

So the issue is we need the bill so we have warranted protection for U.S. person anywhere on the globe. We do not have to then get a warrant for a foreign terrorist in a foreign country, regardless of where we intercept that.

The thing that most people don't full appreciate is global communications has changed so dramatically. What we used to do 30 years ago intercepting something in a foreign country, it's quite often today that we would intercept it in this country, although it's foreign activity by foreigners in a foreign country. That's the global nature of communications today.

MONTAGNE: Mr. McConnell, very briefly, we just have a few seconds. The Congress is suggesting that you accept another short extension of the law - the administration - while the House and Senate work out differences. Why not do that?

Mr. MCCONNELL: Well, quite frankly, we've been working this for two years, and each time we get close to a decision or a hard decision, we want to extend it. The point is, if we have the current law - the extended law - we still don't have liability protection for the carriers.

So what the American people need to appreciate is we are losing capability to protect the country as we debate this without acting on the bill that's already passed the Senate by two-thirds majority.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. MCCONNELL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Mike McConnell is the director of national intelligence.

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