Spy chief stumbles on Capitol Hill

first_imgMcConnell, who briefs Bush each morning, said he did not anticipate the six- and seven-day workweeks, with hours stretching from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. “My biggest challenge early is just stamina,” McConnell, 64, told an audience of government officials in May. Days later, McConnell issued a 100-day plan that included efforts to simplify the security clearance process and other bureaucratic problems. The marching orders drew quiet grumbles from some midlevel intelligence officers who thought he was pressing for changes that were already happening. His office thought everyone needed to get on the same page. McConnell again irked some when he boasted to an audience of intelligence officials and two reporters that he cut a classified, multibillion-dollar program. It did not take long for the media to find out he had cut a much-maligned satellite program known as “Misty.” Then, this summer, McConnell dove headfirst into the FISA debate, championing a bill that he said would modernize the law to ensure spy agencies adequately could eavesdrop on adversaries. Civil liberties advocates say his ideas trample the Constitution. McConnell caught the attention of Democrats in May when he wrote an opinion column for The Washington Post that left the impression that FISA had not been updated since 1978. Among other factual differences, House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, responded that the law had been updated in 50 ways since its passage. Still, Reyes and other Democrats were willing to work with him, and McConnell spent hours personally hammering out legislation before Congress’ annual August recess. It got bumpy when Democrats accused McConnell of negotiating in bad faith. John Brennan, an intelligence veteran and chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance professional association, said he does not believe McConnell was trying to mislead anyone on a complicated subject. “In all of my dealings with Mike,” he said, “I have found him to be of the highest integrity and as honest as the day is long. I think he is trying to do the right thing.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush’s spy chief is in the midst of a crash course on how to navigate some of Washington’s most dangerous terrain: Capitol Hill. By many accounts, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell has a lot to learn as the administration’s point man on its controversial effort to overhaul the law that governs how national security agencies snoop on U.S. soil. When Congress created Mc- Connell’s job in late 2004, lawmakers intentionally kept the spy chief off the president’s Cabinet, adhering to the tradition that intelligence officials should eschew politics. But in recent months, Mc- Connell has opened himself up to criticism he has become too political to oversee the 16 spy agencies. Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, a co-author of the legislation that helped create his job, put it bluntly to a Washington audience last week: “Jane to Mike: Please stop. You’re undermining the authorities of your office.” To some, McConnell is a well-regarded retired Navy vice admiral who left a lucrative career as a government consultant to respond to Bush’s search for a spy chief; he’s a much-needed veteran to help the often clumsy intelligence agencies adapt to a post-Sept. 11 world. To others, McConnell is out of the shadows and in over his head. Worse, he either does not always think before he speaks or he intentionally misstates key facts. Just last week, he waited two days before retracting Senate testimony in which he wrongly credited changes in August to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act with this month’s success in breaking up a plot against U.S. targets in Germany. “Those arrests were made with the assistance of intelligence gathered under U.S. laws in effect earlier this year,” said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., chairman of a House Appropriations panel that oversees intelligence spending. “The DNI knew that.” McConnell has declined repeated requests for interviews this year, including one last week to discuss surveillance law and his first 200 days in office. The soft-spoken southerner took over the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in February. Early on, he got some snickers when he complained about his workload. last_img read more