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Spy chief: Oops! FISA changes didn't aid arrests

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, under pressure from congressional Democrats, retracts statement crediting spy law expansion with terror case in Germany.

Earlier this week, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told a Senate committee that a recent expansion of electronic snooping law helped lead to a recent trio of terror arrests in Germany.

Now he's publicly admitting that he was wrong, which may complicate the Bush administration's efforts to renew and further expand the controversial new law.

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell

"The Protect America Act was urgently needed by our intelligence professionals to close critical gaps in our capabilities and permit them to more readily follow terrorist threats, such as the plot uncovered in Germany," he said in a statement issued Wednesday evening. "However, information contributing to the recent arrests was not collected under authorities provided by the Protect America Act."

The Protect America Act is the name of Congress' "update" last month to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. The measure broadened the National Security Agency's power to eavesdrop on phone calls, e-mail messages and other Internet traffic with limited court oversight. It also shields from court action private companies, such as telecommunications firms, that assist government spies. The Bush administration is now lobbying for retroactive immunity as well.

McConnell's backtracking arrived under pressure from U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, who sent a letter to the spy chief on Tuesday that deemed his statement "at odds with information I have received."

"While revising FISA may provide a tool that could enhance future operations, it was not in play in the Germany case," Reyes wrote, citing information from senior U.S. officials. "In fact, FISA, which you repeatedly claim is 'outdated,' was precisely the tool that helped disrupt this plot."

The intelligence director's flub could make it more difficult for the Bush administration to persuade Congress that the temporary law, currently set to expire in about five months, should be expanded and made permanent. After all, one major argument lodged by opponents of the changes is that the updates sought by the Bush administration are a needless addition that could trample on civil liberties.

The topic is likely to come up next Tuesday, when McConnell is supposed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee. As they contemplate what to do about the temporary law, Congressional Democrats are still trying to squeeze out more details about the executive branch's surveillance programs. They say the administration has been refusing to cooperate so far.