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Spy chief: Expanded U.S. snooping law aided German terror arrests

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell again urges senators to extend and broaden an electronic eavesdropping law update opposed by privacy advocates.

WASHINGTON--A recent expansion of U.S. eavesdropping law helped lead to the high-profile arrest of three terrorism suspects in Germany last week, the nation's intelligence director told senators on Monday.

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell credited Congress's much-criticized update of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act last month with making "significant contributions" that ultimately allowed the U.S. government to aid German investigators. The apprehensions targeted what were described as Islamic militants plotting attacks against sites regularly visited by Americans.

McConnell spoke at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing here, which was designed to assess threats against the United States and the state of the government's various antiterrorism operations on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Alongside him were Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, National Counterterrorism Center head John Redd and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

The top intelligence coordinator warned senators that the nation will "lose 50 percent of our ability to track, understand and know what terrorists are doing" if Congress fails to enshrine permanently the legal changes, which broadened the National Security Agency's power to eavesdrop on phone calls, e-mail messages and other Internet traffic with limited court oversight.

The controversial new law, which also shields from court action private companies--such as telecommunications firms--that aid in government surveillance going forward, was set to expire six months after its passage. McConnell made a pitch Monday not only for extending the current law but for adding a provision that would grant retroactive immunity to the private sector, which has been the subject of a number of high-profile lawsuits currently pending in federal court.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have threatened to hold off on renewing or further expanding the law until they've been given more information about how the Bush administration's various surveillance programs work. But, perhaps in an attempt to appear tough on terrorists on the eve of an emotional anniversary, there was no such talk on Monday.

"That is very compelling testimony," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Ct.), the committee's chairman, told McConnell after he offered up his assessment of the law's helpfulness in terror cases. He and his colleagues from both parties repeatedly praised the four administration officials for what they perceived as vital service to the country.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), said he, too, was "encouraged to hear" that the so-called Protect America Act had helped in the German case, adding that he had "taken a fair amount of flak from folks concerned about...abuses of civil liberties" prompted by the legislation. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Cato Institute have argued that the law was a result of fear-mongering by the Bush administration and unjustifiably expanded the government's authority to engage in warrantless wiretapping.

"Any flak you received was wholly undeserved," Lieberman said.