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Spy chief says laws hamper U.S. defense

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Mike McConnell

Mike McConnell

WASHINGTON — Current law prevents the government from fully using its capabilities to protect the United States, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said Wednesday.

Speaking to a conference of federal officials, McConnell said he wants the government to have a more vigorous debate over laws and regulations for intelligence surveillance and similar activities.

"One of the things I worry about most is the current laws and regulations that we have prevent us from using all the talents (and) the capabilities of the government to even play broadly in protecting the nation," he said.

McConnell was not specific about any proposals, but he suggested there is more room for intelligence agencies to use their tools to protect the country. He acknowledged that the issue would require significant discussion on Capitol Hill.

McConnell's comments were among his first public statements since he was confirmed as the nation's spy chief this year. The former National Security Agency director returned to government after a decade in the private sector.

He joined the Bush administration as it was under fire from critics who contended it abused its surveillance powers.

McConnell provided a vigorous defense of one such effort — the terrorist surveillance program. Under it, the NSA monitors the international calls and e-mails of Americans when terrorism is expected. He said that President Bush concluded that the program is legal.

"I can tell you with great confidence ... the fact we do that has saved lives in the United States," McConnell said.

Most recently, he said, the monitoring program had saved lives as he was returning to government late last year. He offered no details nor would his aides.

McConnell said, however, the intelligence agencies must operate within the law.

"We have rules, and laws and regulations about how we should conduct ourselves," McConnell said. "We must work to the very best of our ability to achieve the confidence and respect of the American people. And the way we do that is by abiding by the laws that govern our behavior."