Chief Spy or Chief Enforcer?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, August 8, 2007; 1:04 PM

As the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell is supposed to be above politics.

But last week, as the White House was successfully bullying spooked congressional Democrats into expanding the government's authority to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant, McConnell was President Bush's most effective enforcer.

And if that weren't controversial enough, some Democrats are charging that McConnell initially expressed his support for a much more restrictive Democratic plan -- then reversed himself under pressure from the White House.

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times that McConnell's "unusually high-profile role in the negotiations appears to have strained his relationships with key Democrats and has prompted questions about whether the nation's top intelligence official, who is supposed to operate above the political fray, had allowed himself to be used for partisan purposes. . . .

"After lobbying for the legal changes for more than a year, McConnell maneuvered himself into the position of passing judgment on each proposal that surfaced during the week, angering Democrats by declaring their bills inadequate.

"He also engaged in extensive negotiations with Democrats, during which his apparent changes of position left some members suggesting on the House floor that the intelligence director had become a puppet for the White House.

"At one point, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) expressed bewilderment that McConnell had issued a statement rejecting the Democrats' approach one day after he had told members that their measure 'significantly enhances America's security.' . . .

"A spokesman for McConnell rejected assertions that he had changed his position or been used for political purposes by the White House. 'The White House did not play any part in rejecting that bill,' said Ross Feinstein, a McConnell spokesman. McConnell 'made his own decisions. He was clear all along on what he needed in the bill.'"

Miller explains: "By tradition, the nation's top intelligence official is supposed to be insulated from political pressure or from debates over policy. But at the same time, the director is appointed by the president and serves as his top intelligence aide."

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times that McConnell's "role as the White House's most visible advocate for changing the surveillance law has brought intense criticism from those who question whether an intelligence chief should become part of a political scrum. . . .

"The wrangling has tested both the power and the credibility of the intelligence chief's position."

Democratic leaders apparently thought McConnell had approved their proposal, which would have revised the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to permit warrantless wiretapping of foreign-to-foreign communications while maintaining important checks and balances.

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