US Democrat challenges spy chief's credibility

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WASHINGTON, Sep 25 (Reuters) A top US senator today joined a list of Democrats challenging the credibility of spy chief Michael McConnell, and accused the national intelligence director of unfairly criticizing lawmakers.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy blasted McConnell for suggesting some members of the Democratic-led Congress fail to appreciate the threat of attack. Leahy also criticized McConnell for telling Congress earlier this month that open debate about US surveillance endangered lives.

''I hope we will not hear anymore irresponsible rhetoric about congressional inquiries risking Americans' safety,'' Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told McConnell at a hearing. ''Our job is to protect Americans' security and Americans' rights.'' Congress last month passed a law to expand for six months the power of the government to conduct surveillance without court approval while tracking suspected enemy targets.

The White House wants to make the law permanent, but critics argue the measure must be revised to protect the rights of law-abiding US citizens.

Some congressional Democrats, including Reps. Rush Holt of New Jersey and Anna Eshoo of California, have complained that misstatements by McConnell have eroded his credibility, particularly regarding the expanded surveillance power.

McConnell drew Leahy's ire for declaring in a prepared opening statement, ''I heard a number of individuals -- some from within the government, some from outside -- assert that there really was no substantial threat to our nation justifying this authority.'' ''I have been accused of exaggerating the threats,'' McConnell said. ''Allow me to dispel that notion. The threats we face are real, and they are serious.'' Leahy, referring to McConnell's earlier appearances before other committees, told him, ''I have concerns about some of the statements you made.'' He said McConnell had suggested the new law had helped expose a suspected German bomb plot, but later was forced to clarify he was referring to the overall spy program, based on the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Leahy also said McConnell earlier offered conflicting estimates of how much intelligence-gathering capability would be lost without the new law.

Reuters KK VP0150

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