Russia and China ‘spying at Cold War levels’

Chinese and Russian spies are stalking the United States at levels close to those seen during the tense covert espionage duels of the Cold War, the top US intelligence officer warned on Tuesday.

Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell was to raise the spectre of a new era of clandestine intelligence wars during a House of Representatives hearing on a contentious new law on warrantless wiretapping.

McConnell said in an advance copy of his testimony that US undercover agencies must simultaneously battle traditional state foes as well as al-Qaeda, as it tries to infiltrate US territory to pull off spectacular terrorist attacks.

McConnell was also to say that Lebanon-based Hezbollah may mull attacks on the US mainland if it sees the United States threatening Iran.

”China and Russia’s foreign intelligence services are among the most aggressive in collecting against sensitive and protected US systems, facilities and developmental projects,” McConnell said in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

”Their efforts are reaching Cold War levels.”

In July, FBI director Robert Mueller told Congress that China’s espionage operations were a ”substantial concern” and Beijing was stealing US secrets to boost its fast-developing military and economy.

Earlier this month, the Financial Times reported that China’s military had hacked into the Pentagon’s military computer network — though the Chinese government denied the report.

McConnell also said in his testimony that al-Qaeda remained the most serious terrorist threat to the United States and was increasing its efforts to position operatives on US soil.

And he added a potential new danger could materialise for the US mainland from Shi’ite militia group Hezbollah.

”We assess that Lebanese Hezbollah, which has conducted anti-US attacks outside the United States in the past, may be more likely to consider attacking the homeland over the next three years if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran,” McConnell said.

McConnell was testifying in favour of an extension to a White House-backed law to extend the power of US intelligence agents to eavesdrop on terror suspects, passed hurriedly after a showdown between Congress and the White House in August.

The measure lets US intelligence agencies to listen in on telephone and email conversations mainly outside the United States, but routed through US-based communications firms. Under the law, US agencies can get access such contacts without obtaining prior approval from a court.

Democratic Representative Sylvestre Reyes said in a separate hearing the new law, called the Protect America Act, was ”very flawed.”

”I am concerned that as drafted the administration’s Bill just went too far,” Reyes, chairperson of the House Senate Select Intelligence committee, said.

”It allows warrantless physical searches of Americans’ homes, offices and computers … it contains insufficient protections for Americans who will have their phone calls listened to and emails read under this broad new authority.”

Republicans, however, said the law filled a gaping intelligence loophole, in the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, and spies should not be required to get a court order to eavesdrop on a ”known terrorist” and someone within the United States. — AFP



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Stephen Collinson
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