WASHINGTON — In response to questions from lawmakers, the nation's top intelligence official on Wednesday issued a statement correcting his recent testimony before Congress, saying that controversial new U.S. surveillance powers did not play a role in helping German authorities thwart a suspected terrorist plot earlier this month.
Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell said during a Senate hearing Monday that a revised Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed last month by Congress was instrumental in providing the Germans with U.S. electronic intercepts of terrorist communications.
At McConnell's urging, Congress passed the Protect America Act to allow U.S. intelligence officials to resume eavesdropping without a warrant on communications between foreigners overseas, after a FISA judge ruled last March that such intercepts were impermissible.
On Sept. 4, German authorities arrested three men on suspicion of plotting car bombings that could have killed hundreds of Americans, possibly at a U.S. air base in Germany or at nightclubs and other crowded locales.
"It was passed, as you well know, and we're very pleased with that," McConnell said of the law at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "And we're better-prepared now to continue our mission; specifically Germany, significant contributions."
But the U.S. intercepts were given to the Germans over the last year or so, according to intelligence officials, which meant that many of them would have been obtained under an old version of FISA that McConnell and some other administration officials had said was inadequate.
McConnell acknowledged so himself after the hearing, when questioned about the timeline by reporters. He said the FISA law in general was responsible for the intercepts, not the recently passed version of the law, which many Democrats opposed as lacking controls.
McConnell also called Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the committee chairman, on Tuesday to "clarify his testimony," a senior intelligence official said Wednesday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal policy matters.
But several lawmakers pressed McConnell for a public clarification, in letters and calls to his office, according to the intelligence official.
One of them, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), said in public statements Wednesday morning that McConnell was improperly acting as a political cheerleader for the new FISA law when his job demands impartiality -- and that he was getting his facts wrong in the process.
"Excuse me, those people were under surveillance for 10 months," she said, citing news reports. Harman, chairwoman of the intelligence panel of the House Committee on Homeland Security, also criticized McConnell for disclosing classified information about the surveillance effort to a Texas newspaper last month while Congress was debating revisions to the law. And she accused him of improperly lobbying Congress on the issue.
"Jane to Mike, please stop undermining the authority of your office," Harman said during a panel appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Wednesday evening, McConnell issued a terse statement: "During the [hearing], I discussed the critical importance to our national security of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the recent amendments to FISA made by the Protect America Act. 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. However, information contributing to the recent arrests was not collected under authorities provided by the Protect America Act."
The emergency legislation is set to expire in five months.
A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment Wednesday on McConnell's statement, or on Harman's criticism.
The unidentified intelligence official, however, said McConnell "wasn't purposely trying to politicize FISA. He just misspoke. When he pushes for FISA, he is pushing as the director of national intelligence so that the intelligence community has the tools it needs to protect the nation."