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Candidates' Long-Held Intelligence Views Shift

The Senate this week will consider another revision of the law setting down rules for wiretapping. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, has long been the subject of fierce debate.

In the coming months, Congress may also take up a bill that would restrict CIA interrogation procedures.

As senators, both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have long-held views on these intelligence issues. But now that they're presidential candidates, their perspectives are changing.


Obama long opposed any revision of the surveillance law that retroactively shielded U.S. telecommunications companies from prosecution for helping the Bush administration carry out wiretaps without warrants.

The FISA revision now before the Senate does provide that immunity, but Obama says he will support it anyway. That turnaround has dismayed many of his supporters. Some fellow Democrats, like Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, are left hoping that Obama would revisit the FISA issue as president.

"I think the retroactive immunity will still need to be addressed," Eshoo said. "And I don't think that Sen. McCain will do that. And I'm not saying this to be partisan, but they have a different view on it."

But that's actually not so clear anymore. In explaining his FISA switch, Obama said the telecom issue was less important to him than U.S. national security. He said he mainly wanted more civil liberty safeguards in the FISA program, and he said the legislation had been improved in that respect.

"That, in my mind, met my basic concerns. And given that all the information I've received is that the underlying program itself actually is important and useful to American security, as long as it has these constraints on them, I felt it was more important for me to go ahead and support this compromise," Obama said.


What's important in that statement is Obama's reference to "the information I've received." He's advised on intelligence matters by John Brennan, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Like many intelligence professionals, Brennan says the FISA program is essential to the fight against terrorism.

By adopting Brennan's view, Obama improves his standing with the intelligence community; for someone looking ahead to a presidential administration, that's important.

McCain has moved in the same direction. Three years ago, he criticized President Bush for authorizing wiretaps without warrants; now he's a strong supporter of the program.

But the big McCain shift has come on the issue of CIA interrogations. The proposal pending in Congress would limit CIA interrogators to those procedures laid down in the Army Field Manual. McCain has been a fierce critic of any procedure resembling torture. When asked in a debate last November what the CIA should be allowed to do, McCain cited what an officer in Iraq had told him about interrogations.

"The Army general there said that the techniques under the Army Field Manual are working and working effectively, and he didn't think they need to do anything else," McCain said.

But in an interview with NPR, McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, said McCain's position now is that CIA interrogators should not be bound by Army Field Manual guidelines.

"The fact that the Army Field Manual is public does give adversaries an opportunity to train against those techniques, and he thinks it is important to have certain non-public techniques — that are not torture, that are not cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment — available to our intelligence personnel," Scheunemann said.

Like Obama, McCain seems to be aligning himself more closely with the intelligence community. His new position on interrogation coincides with the one taken by CIA Director Michael Hayden.

Obama campaign spokesmen say he still thinks CIA interrogators should abide by the Army Field Manual, but he missed the last Senate vote on the issue.

One other big intelligence issue is oversight. Democrats and Republicans alike complain they've been shut out of key intelligence decisions. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, voiced his frustrations recently at a public forum.

"This administration has made it very, very difficult for the oversight committees to do their jobs," he said. "The intel committees need additional tools to get into the administrations or into the bureaucracies, because if they want to withhold information and keep us in the dark, they do."

Neither McCain nor Obama has had much to say about intelligence oversight. But both are U.S. senators, with histories of defending congressional prerogative. This may be one issue on which they're inclined to challenge the intelligence status quo.

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