Intelligence Director: US is intercepting 'billions' of foreign communications
Update: McConnell says 9/11 'could have been prevented
Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that the terror attacks of Sept. 11, which he invoked to justify expanding US spy powers, "could have been prevented" under existing laws if intelligence agencies had "connected the dots" in analyzing intelligence.
A 9/11 plotter in the United States was speaking to a known al Qaeda operative abroad, and the US failed to intercept the conversations, McConnell said, although Democrats reminded him of other indications of a pending attack that were missed.
"9/11 should have and could have been prevented," the intelligence director said.
He then posed the question, "What about when you have a foreign terrorist - a known terrorist - calls into the United States?" McConnell continued, answering himself, "We have a procedure to deal with that. We would minimize it if a foreign terrorist calls in and there's no intelligence value but, what I would highlight is that it might be - as it was in 9/11 - that might be the single most important call we get. It might be to a sleeper cell. It might be activating something."
McConnell says number of Americans overheard small in comparison
The United States' top spy said American intelligence agencies are intercepting "billions" of conversations and e-mails abroad, but he would not say how many Americans have been inadvertently snared in this international warrantless wiretapping dragnet.
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell would say only that the number of Americans overheard by National Intelligence Agency eavesdroppers was "small" in relation to the massive number of "transactions" intercepted from overseas targets.
"It's a very small number considering that there are billions of transactions every day," McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee Monday.
The US is spying on "thousands, potentially millions (of) potential targets of interest," McConnell said later in the hearing. Congress is beginning to consider another update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires intelligence agencies get a warrant before spying on Americans.
McConnell insisted that Americans were the "targets" of "wiretaps" without a court order, but he acknowledged that Americans phone calls inevitably were overheard when foreign intelligence targets were wiretapped. In cases where spies picked up US-based conversations, "minimization" techniques were employed, and a warrant would be required to target the person in the United States -- whether or not he or she is an American citizen.
"Sir, I need to answer your question one more time, 'How many Americans' phones have been tapped without a court order?', and it's none,'" McConnell said.
Rep. John Conyers, the Judiciary Committee's chairman, tried to nail down specifics from McConnell, but the intelligence chief tried to maintain focus on the need to update the law to ease interception of foreign-to-foreign conversations, which Democrats and Republicans agree should not be subject to warrant requirements. But in his closely parsed answers, McConnell seemed to say that in spying on foreign targets, US wiretaps pick up every conversation they make, including those that come into the US.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Dan Lungren, the committee's top Republican, compared the minimization techniques to protocols used by the FBI in surveillance of organized crime suspects. When the G-Men wiretap a suspected mobster's phone they pick up every conversation, including to the local pizza place or dry cleaners, and they have to make sure not to listen too long to calls unrelated to criminal investigations.
McConnell did not dispute Lungren's comparison.
Familiar faces disrupt hearing
At several points in Tuesday's hearing -- McConnell's first appearance before the Judiciary Committee -- protesters from the anti-war group Code Pink interrupted the proceedings with boisterous signs, chants and marches.
Conyers called the demonstrations "counterproductive," but he did not move as quickly to have them removed as did Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) during last week's testimony from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
"This is unfair and is not the kind of hearing I know you wish to conduct," Lungren chastized Conyers in requesting the protesters be kicked out immediately.
At one point after Capitol Police removed several protesters, and Conyers warned others not to hold up signs, a dozen or so members of the group returned to the Capitol Hill hearing room and marched up and down the aisle shouting "save the constitution."
"We implore you Mr. Conyers, open up impeachment," said one of the demonstrators.
When they left Lungren joked, "I guess I don't have to go to Disneyland this year."
This video is from C-SPAN 3, broadcast September 18.
In the following video clip, Code Pink protesters interrupt hearing.
In the following video, CIA Director McConnell admits that the September 11th attacks could have been prevented.