WASHINGTON, Sep 18 (Reuters) Spying on the United States by Russia and China has rebounded almost to Cold War levels, the top US spy chief told Congress today in seeking a permanent expansion of US eavesdropping authority.
National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell made the accusation as the White House stepped up lobbying a skeptical Democratic-led Congress for broadened surveillance powers, which are primarily cast as a counterterrorism tool.
''China and Russia's foreign intelligence services are among the most aggressive in collecting against sensitive and protected US systems, facilities and development projects,'' McConnell told the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in written testimony.
''Their efforts are approaching Cold War levels,'' he said.
McConnell declined to elaborate after the hearing.
His spokesman, Ross Feinstein, said the testimony was meant to emphasize that the eavesdropping authority under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act, or FISA, is needed for traditional counterintelligence as well as terrorism surveillance.
''FISA is beyond a terrorist tool, we are talking about foreign intelligence as well,'' he said.
China and Russia, along with Iran, have long been considered leading countries which spy on the United States.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, has overseen the re-emergence of the Russian security apparatus and promoted Cold War intelligence successes against the West.
US National Counterintelligence Executive Joel Brenner cited China earlier this year as among countries who seek civilian and military advantage by spying on the United States.
''The Chinese are leveraging the American R&D (research and development) budget ... in support of their own war-fighting capability,'' Brenner said in a March speech to the American Bar Association.
TEMPORARY EXPANSION Democratic lawmakers last month helped pass temporary legislation expanding federal authority to eavesdrop on foreign conversations. But many are wary of granting permanent authority without more restrictions to protect against broad eavesdropping on Americans' international calls.
They say US President George W Bush abused his trust by creating and not properly informing the US Congress of a program of warrantless eavesdropping of international communications by people in the United States with suspected foreign enemies.
''The power to invade people's privacy cannot be exercised unchecked,'' New York Democratic Rep Jerrold Nadler said at the hearing.
The eavesdropping programme was put under court supervision earlier this year, and in August Congress passed six-month authority for the eavesdropping to continue.
McConnell said that no Americans had been targeted for warrantless eavesdropping since he took over the job in February. He also said the government's ability to collect foreign intelligence had declined this year until the temporary surveillance expansion was passed, but had since rebounded.
Highlighting his call for the new powers, Bush is to visit on Wednesday the National Security Agency, which carries out electronic surveillance. The White House issued a fact sheet arguing that the rights of Americans would not be compromised by the legislation.
''The intelligence community needs all the appropriate tools,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
REUTERS RC BST0311