Washington National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell pulled the curtain back on previously classified details of government surveillance and of a secretive court whose recent rulings created new hurdles for the Bush administration as it tries to prevent terrorism.
McConnell's comments - made in an interview with the El Paso (Texas) Times last week and posted as a transcript on the newspaper's Web site Wednesday - raised eyebrows for their frank discussion of previously classified eavesdropping work conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA. Among the disclosures:
l McConnell confirmed for the first time that the private sector assisted with President Bush's warrantless surveillance program. AT&T, Verizon and other telecommunications companies are being sued for their cooperation. "Now if you play out the suits at the value they're claimed, it would bankrupt these companies," McConnell said, arguing that they deserve immunity for their help.
l He provided new details on court rulings handed down by the 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves classified eavesdropping operations and whose proceedings are almost always entirely secret. McConnell said a ruling that went into effect May 31 required the government to get court warrants to monitor communications between two foreigners if the conversation travels on a wire in the U.S. network. Millions of calls each day do, because of the robust nature of the U.S. systems.
l Offering never-disclosed figures, McConnell also revealed that fewer than 100 people inside the United States are monitored under FISA warrants. However, he said, thousands of people overseas are monitored.
McConnell's comments were a dramatic departure from the government's normally tight-lipped approach to disclosing any information about how it spies on electronic communications - some of its most sensitive and costly work. The FISA court's activities are particularly protected.
McConnell was in El Paso last week for a conference on border security hosted by House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. The spy chief joined Reyes for an interview with his local paper.
At the end of the interview, McConnell cautioned reporter Chris Roberts that he should consider whether enemies of the U.S. could gain from the information he just shared in the interview, Roberts said. McConnell left it to the paper to decide what to publish.
"I don't believe it damaged national security or endangered any of our people," said El Paso Times Executive Editor Dionicio Flores.