The next U.S. director of national intelligence must establish a more cooperative relationship with Congress and not withhold information needed for oversight, President Bush's nominee for the job, retired Navy Vice Adm. John M. "Mike" McConnell, was told at a Senate confirmation hearing today.
"It is no secret that I have not been happy in the past with decisions by the [Bush] administration to restrict access to required information by our members and staff," Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) told McConnell. "Depriving our committee of the information it needs, or over-restricting access to the information that we need, not only weakens congressional oversight of secretive intelligence programs, it generates unnecessary suspicion and, worst of all, undercuts the effectiveness of activities, generally."
McConnell pledged to forge effective ties with congressional overseers, noting that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which exposed severe flaws in U.S. intelligence gathering, "are some of the most pressing priorities of this committee."
"If confirmed, I will work with you in addressing these issues as my highest priorities," McConnell said. "If confirmed, I also will also consult with this committee, the House intelligence committee and other congressional leaders. I will be open to your questions and proposals."
Committee members seemed largely impressed with McConnell's straight-to-the-point answers to their questions.
"Your testimony has given me enormous hope and confidence," Rockefeller said at the end of the two-hour session. " . . .It strikes me that you have precisely the kind of personality, experience and strength and determination to accomplish the task."
McConnell would replace John D. Negroponte as the nation's second director of national intelligence (DNI), a job created by Congress in December 2004 as part of a restructuring of the intelligence community in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Negroponte is slated to become deputy secretary of state.
Two years after the U.S. got its first intelligence czar, the job of restructuring the nation's $42 billion, 16-agency intelligence community is very much a work in progress, Democratic and Republican members of the committee agreed today.
Democrats, emboldened by their victories in the November elections, which enabled them to take control of key committees, complained that the intelligence community often has ignored congressional requests for sensitive information. And they noted that the Bush administration used faulty prewar assessments of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as a pretext to invade the country in March 2003. One senator referred indirectly to former CIA director George J. Tenet's reported assurance to Bush that intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk."
McConnell was pressed on whether he would be willing to tell commander-in-chief Bush something he might not want to hear.
"If you were the director of national intelligence, and you became aware that the Bush administration was cherry-picking or exaggerating intelligence to justify going to war, what would be the response?" Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked.
"If I was aware that anyone was using information inappropriately, then I would make that known to whoever was using the information inappropriately," McConnell responded.
"You would tell the president and this [intelligence] committee?" Wyden asked.
"I would tell all of those responsible for this process what the situation is," McConnell said.
McConnell, a senior vice president of the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm, spoke today of how the intelligence landscape has changed since Sept. 11, 2001, when four airplanes were hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon, World Trade Center and a Pennsylvania field.
"Not many years ago, the intelligence community focused almost exclusively on foreign threats outside our borders," he said. "What is new is the need to focus on these threats inside our borders. We must be effective in collecting and processing information to protect Americans from terrorism and to do so consistent with our Constitution, our laws and our values to respect the rights and privacy of our citizens. We will need to work together to develop processes and procedures that are effective in meeting these goals."
Some members of Congress have questioned whether the director of national intelligence has been given enough power to fulfill its mandate, which includes managing the collection and analysis of intelligence from 100,000 people who work in 16 government agencies.
McConnell, 63, served in the Navy as a career intelligence officer, rising to vice admiral when he headed the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996 under President Bill Clinton. After retiring from the Navy, he took a private-sector job in March 1996 with McLean-based Booz Allen Hamilton.
At Booz Allen, McConnell never strayed far from the intelligence community, offering his expertise to large private firms in the banking and financial sectors, for example, and to government agencies, including the Department of Defense. He also chairs the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an industry group that works with the government to solve complex intelligence problems.
Last year, McConnell turned down an offer to become Negroponte's intelligence deputy. But over the Christmas holidays Bush and Vice President Cheney urged him to take the lead intelligence job.