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April 27, 2017

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China and Russia spying at Cold War levels: U.S. spy chief

WASHINGTON -- 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 U.S. intelligence officer warned Tuesday.

Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell raised the specter 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 written testimony that U.S. undercover agencies must simultaneously battle traditional state foes and al-Qaida, as it tries to infiltrate U.S. territory to pull off spectacular terrorist attacks.

He also warned Lebanon-based Hezbollah may mull attacks on the U.S. 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 U.S. systems, facilities and developmental projects," McConnell told 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 U.S. 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-Qaida remained the most serious terrorist threat to the United States and was increasing its efforts to position operatives on U.S. soil.

And he added a potential new danger could materialize for the U.S. mainland from Shiite 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 favor of an extension to a White House-backed law to extend the power of intelligence agents to eavesdrop on terror suspects, passed hurriedly after a political showdown in August.

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

The hearing was repeatedly interrupted by 'Code Pink' anti-war protestors, who were ejected chanting and shouting.

One woman screamed "Our founding fathers are rolling in their graves" at McConnell, as she was led away.

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, chairman 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 e-mails 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.

"The intelligence community needs all the appropriate tools," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, adding that President George W. Bush would visit the super-secret National Security Agency on Wednesday for a briefing on how the legislation works.

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