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U.S. concerned over Russia's intelligence ops - McConnell

WASHINGTON, May 2 (RIA Novosti) - Russia's foreign intelligence operations against the United States are currently at the same level as during the Cold War, the U.S. national intelligence chief said.

Michael McConnell said Tuesday that Russia and China are the most aggressive countries at gathering information about American sensitive technologies, including projects under development, and the scale of their intelligence activities is at Cold War levels.

Last month McConnell, who assumed his current post in February, circulated a draft bill allowing the U.S. government to expand its powers under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which could include planting listening devices and hidden cameras, as well as breaking into houses to make copies of computer hard drives.

Relations between Russia and the United States heated up after the U.S. announced plans to deploy elements of its missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, to counter possible attacks from Iran or North Korea, as well as to finance nongovernmental organizations and opposition parties in Russia in a bid to improve the country's democratic record.

Russian President Vladimir Putin compared last week, U.S. plans to deploy its missile defenses in Europe to the deployment of Pershing cruise missiles in the 1980s.

Russia, which has been anxious about NATO bases that have appeared in former Communist-bloc countries and ex-Soviet republics, considers the plans to deploy anti-missile systems in Central Europe a national security threat and a destabilizing factor for Europe.

The current situation closely resembles the events of the 1980s, when NATO decided to deploy U.S. Pershing II and Tomahawk missiles in Western Europe. In the event of a military confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West, those missiles could have quickly destroyed the largest Russian cities, while the United States would have remained invulnerable.

The Kremlin launched at the time a worldwide protest campaign against the deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe. As a result, the former Soviet Union and the U.S. signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) December 8, 1987. The agreement came into force in June 1988 and does not have a specific duration.

The INF treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles). By the treaty's deadline of June 1, 1991, a total of 2,692 such weapons had been destroyed, 846 by the U.S. and 1,846 by the Soviet Union.

On February 10, 2007, Putin declared that the INF Treaty no longer served Russia's interests. On February 14, Gen. Yury Baluyevsky, the chief of the Russian General Staff, said Russia could pull out of the INF unilaterally, which sounded a strong warning to the U.S. regarding its plans to deploy elements of its anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

While the U.S. claims that Russia has intensified its intelligence activities a major spying scandal clouded relations between Russia and the UK at the start of last year, when Moscow claimed four British agents in the Russian capital had been caught procuring information from a high-tech communication device hidden in a rock.