US Director of Intelligence Michael McConnell said the surveillance program had made ''significant contributions'' in discovering and breaking up a suspected plot in Germany to bomb American installations. He cited them as a reason that the US Congress should reject attempts to restrict it.
''It allowed us to see and understand all the connections ... to al Qaeda,'' McConnell told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee yesterday.
The program also contributed to the arrests in Denmark of eight Muslims, with suspected links to al Qaeda, on suspicion of planning a bomb attack, National Counterterrorism Center Director John Redd told reporters later.
McConnell said the surveillance program, which includes tapping the communications of foreign terrorism suspects, helped track links between those arrested in Germany and the Islamic Jihad Union, which he described as an al Qaeda affiliate.
After ''a long process of monitoring and observation,'' authorities realized the suspects had obtained explosive liquids, he said. ''And so, at the right time, when Americans and German facilities were being targeted, the German authorities decided to move.'' Civil liberties advocates have criticized portions of the program which allow the monitoring of international calls to people in the United States.
Congress passed legislation in August easing for six months restrictions on wiretapping under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. Some Democrats stung by a backlash from their supporters have vowed to revise it as early as possible.
However, McConnell rejected criticisms that the program amounted to ''spying on Americans'' and said it was vital.
''If we lose FISA, we will lose, my estimate, 50 per cent of our ability to track, understand and know about these terrorists, what they're doing to train, what they're doing to recruit, and what they're doing to try to get into this country,'' he said.
Ken Wainstein, assistant US attorney general for national security, said the Justice Department had implemented new measures that go beyond the legislation's requirements to ensure the surveillance program is not being misused and to keep Congress informed.
Critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union say protections in the current law are inadequate. They want to give U.S. courts and Congress more power to oversee the program.
REUTERS TB RN0521