Admiral Scapegoat

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, August 9, 2007

A sadder but wiser Vice Admiral J.M. "Mike" McConnell, director of national intelligence (DNI), told a senior Republican House member last weekend that the next time he dealt with congressional Democrats he would make sure a Republican was in the room or on the phone. After a lifetime navigating the murky waters of intelligence, McConnell at age 64 was ill-prepared for the stormy seas of Capitol Hill.

Late Saturday, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed a bill that is anathema to the party's base: authorization of eavesdropping on suspected terrorist conversations without a court warrant. It passed because Democrats could not take the political risk of going home for the August recess having shut down U.S. surveillance of threats to the country. But since they could not blame themselves, they blamed the nonpolitical DNI.

At issue is whether McConnell, in a closed-door meeting, accepted a Democratic plan sharply limiting warrantless eavesdropping and then reneged under White House pressure. The Democratic leadership hoped the admiral's approval would give enough Republicans and Democrats cover to vote for their bill. Instead, his disapproval produced a breakdown in Democratic discipline rare during this Congress.

McConnell, who spent 26 of his 29 active-duty Navy years in intelligence, is a gray spook not widely known on Capitol Hill until last week. After serving the last four years of his naval career as director of the National Security Agency under President Bill Clinton, he was not considered a Republican. That was before last week's meeting at Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office with other key House Democrats and with McConnell on the phone. As usual, no Republicans were invited, and the bill under discussion was not revealed to the GOP.

Hopes of passing the bill faded when McConnell issued a written statement saying, "I strongly oppose it," adding that it "would not allow me to carry out my responsibility to provide warning and to protect the nation." Nevertheless, Democratic leaders brought up their bill on Friday under a procedure requiring a two-thirds vote for passage to prevent the Republicans from offering a stronger substitute. The vote, 218 to 207, fell far short.

That left Democrats in a difficult position. Could they go home without having passed a surveillance bill and face Republican taunts that Congress was permitting terrorists to communicate freely? They had no choice but to permit the administration's bill to come to a vote Saturday night just before adjourning, without imposing party discipline. Not a single Democrat spoke in favor of the bill. No committee chairman voted for it. But 41 Democrats did -- mostly junior members, including 13 freshmen from competitive districts. The bill passed 227 to 183. It also passed easily in the Senate, where 16 Democrats supported it.

To explain this defeat, Democrats in floor debate added McConnell to their gallery of rogues, along with George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York suggested McConnell accepted the Democratic restrictions "until he spoke to the White House, and now he changes politically." Off the House floor, one prominent Democrat said -- not for attribution -- that McConnell "was less than truthful." On the record, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel told me: "He was not negotiating in good faith."

What did McConnell say in his conference with the Democrats? The usually prudent House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, was measured in floor debate, saying the DNI (in a "direct quote") informed the Democrats that their proposal "significantly enhances America's security." He added: "I do not imply that he said he supported it." McConnell, a reticent professional intelligence officer, declined to talk to me about his comments to Democrats. But Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, talked with McConnell on Saturday and Monday and told me: "He never had a deal with the Democrats."

In three decades of dealing with intelligence secrets, Mike McConnell was never subjected to the abuse he encountered in the two House sessions, during which he was called a cowardly liar. With the activist Democratic base bitterly opposed to eavesdropping but the party's leadership wary of challenging President Bush on protecting the country from terrorism, the admiral became the scapegoat.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company