Blaming the admiral

Robert Novak's picture

WASHINGTON — A sadder but wiser 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, Admiral McConnell at age 64 was ill prepared for the stormy seas of Capitol Hill.

Late last Saturday, the Democratic-controlled Congress enacted 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 off U.S. surveillance of threats to the country. But since they could not blame themselves, they blamed the non-political 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 rare breakdown in Democratic discipline during this Congress.

McConnell, who spent 26 of his 29 Navy active duty 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 President Clinton’s National Security Agency director, he never was considered a Republican. That was before last week’s meeting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office with other key House Democrats 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 last Friday under a procedure requiring a two-thirds vote for passage to prevent the Republicans from offering a stronger substitute. The 218 to 207 vote fell far short.

That left Democrats in a difficult position. Could they now go home for August without a surveillance bill passed 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 vote Saturday night just before adjournment for the recess, without imposing party discipline. Not a single Democrat spoke in favor of the bill. No committee chairman voted for it. But 41 House Democrats did — mostly junior members, including 13 freshmen elected from competitive districts last year, as it passed 227 to 183. The bill also passed the Senate easily, supported by 16 Democrats.

To explain this defeat, Democrats in floor debate added McConnell to their rogue’s gallery along with George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York suggested that the DNI 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 quotation — 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 measure “significantly enhances America’s security,” adding: “I do not imply that he said he supported it.”

McConnell, a reticent professional intelligence officer, refused to talk to me about his comments to the Democrats. But Rep. Pete Hoekstra, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, talked with McConnell Saturday and Monday and told me: “He never had a deal with the Democrats.”

In three decades of dealing with secrets of intelligence, Mike McConnell never was subjected to the abuse he encountered in these two House sessions when he was called a cowardly liar. With the Democratic activist 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.


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