Before Students, Intelligence Chief Defends Efforts

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

The nation's intelligence chief told St. Mary's College of Maryland students Wednesday afternoon that the United States has obtained information from interrogations of terrorism suspects that has saved lives -- but did not engage in torture to get it.

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said the prisoner abuse and torture that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq put a false image of interrogation into the minds of Americans.

During the appearance, sponsored by the college's Center for the Study of Democracy and the Patuxent Partnership, McConnell traced the history of the intelligence community, tackled the topic of how much information agencies should share with the public and discussed how intelligence should be professional, not political.

"Americans love to read spy novels, and we love to watch spy movies . . . but Americans don't like spies," he said. "It's our culture. We just don't trust government."

The history of intelligence is that it's never there when you need it, McConnell said. Intelligence systems are quickly built during wartime or when they are needed, then dismantled when the threat subsides. That is why, he said, the nation was not prepared for Sept. 11, 2001, which he said could have been avoided with better organization.

A new challenge to intelligence gatherers has been the globalization of technology and the accompanying cybersecurity concerns, he said. Laws have not kept up with the technology boom, McConnell said, noting that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act could not have accounted for cellphones or the Internet.

McConnell -- who has been grilled in recent months on such topics as interrogation tapes, the simulated-drowning technique known as waterboarding, wiretapping and Iran intelligence -- also answered questions from students.

One wanted to know how federal agencies share information while protecting civil liberties. McConnell said the job is difficult, especially because agencies cannot monitor people in the United States, even foreigners, as closely as is permitted when surveillance targets are outside the country.

A political science major asked why Osama bin Laden has not been caught. McConnell said the al-Qaeda leader is deeply hidden along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a mountainous region the size of New Jersey that is difficult to search, especially because bin Laden is constantly moving. "It doesn't mean we aren't looking," he said.

Another student asked how the intelligence community decides what information is the most important.

"Sorting is a challenge," McConnell answered, noting that billions of bits of new information are collected each day. "We're making progress."

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