WASHINGTON - No Americans' telephones have been tapped without a court order since at least February, the top US intelligence official told Congress yesterday.
But Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, could not say how many Americans' telephone conversations have been overheard because of US wiretaps on foreign phone lines.
"I don't have the exact number . . . considering there are billions of transactions every day," McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing on the law governing federal surveillance of phone calls and e-mails.
In a newspaper interview last month, he said the government had tapped fewer than 100 Americans' phones and e-mails under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires warrants from a secret intelligence court. McConnell is seeking additional changes to the law, which Congress hastily modified just before going on vacation in August based in part on the intelligence chief's warnings of a dire gap in US intelligence.
The new law eased some of the restrictions on government eavesdropping contained in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under the new law, the government can eavesdrop, without a court order, on communications conducted by a person reasonably believed to be outside the United States, even if an American is on one end of the conversation, so long as that American is not the intended focus or target.
Before McConnell can persuade Congress to make the Protect America Act permanent - and agree to even more changes easing the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - he first has to allay concerns that the law passed so hastily earlier this year does not subject Americans to unwarranted government surveillance.
"The right to privacy is too important to be sacrificed in a last-minute rush before a congressional recess, which is what happened," said Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, the panel's chairman.
Many Democrats in Congress are seeking to narrow what they consider to be overly broad language by rewriting the law. Assistant Attorney General Kenneth L. Wainstein warned that inserting specific prohibitions to protect civil liberties could have unintended consequences.
McConnell said that as long as his office can examine every word of the new language to scrub it for unintended consequences, he would be open to the changes.
However, Bush administration officials say concern about the new powers is unfounded. They contend the Protect America Act only allows the government to target foreigners for surveillance without a warrant, a change that was needed because of changes in communications technology.
The Justice Department and the White House yesterday issued a "myth and facts" paper meant to ease the concerns of civil liberties advocates and privacy groups.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, called it a troubling "charm offensive."
"The act gives the president almost unfettered power to spy without judicial approval - not only on foreigners but on Americans," said Nadler, who is chairman of the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.