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McConnell Is Cast as a Lobbyist

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THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - April 3, 2008
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Intelligence Director McConnell Is Cast as a Lobbyist
By Greg Miller
The Los Angeles Times

Congressional Democrats see the spy chief as an agent of 
the Bush administration. Relations are strained. 

Washington - On the eve of a House vote on controversial 
wiretapping legislation last month, the nation's 
intelligence director, J. Michael McConnell, convened a 
secret weekend meeting in northern Virginia with members 
of the House Intelligence Committee. 

The two-day session was designed to promote a calmer 
atmosphere for discussing an array of intelligence issues, 
including the nation's eavesdropping laws. But participants 
said the event ended with a series of acrimonious exchanges.

Democrats accused McConnell of making exaggerated claims 
and of doing the bidding of the Bush administration, 
according to officials who attended the event. McConnell 
bristled at the Democrats' charges, and chastised members 
of the committee for failing to defend the intelligence 
community amid a barrage of bad press. 

As lawmakers return to Washington this week to resume 
negotiations on legislation that will shape the govern-
ment's ability to intercept international phone calls and 
e-mails - and compel U.S. telecommunications companies to 
provide extensive access to their networks - House 
Democrats say that relations with McConnell remain frayed. 

Spy chiefs have often seen their support in Congress fade 
after embarrassing intelligence flaps. But McConnell has 
drawn lawmakers' ire largely because the Bush administration
has put him in the unusual role of intelligence community 
lobbyist. 

"I think people recognize that McConnell is very bright, 
very capable, and wants what is best for the country," 
said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the 
House Intelligence Committee.

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"But I do think that he has not overcome the initial 
impression in the House that, rather than speak as an 
independent voice for what the intelligence community 
needed, he instead carried water for the administration," 
Schiff said. "I think that created a cloud around the 
DNI that carries forward to this day." 

The tensions underscore the extent to which the soft-
spoken McConnell has struggled with the political 
dimensions of his job. A retired U.S. Navy admiral, 
McConnell came into the position with the reputation 
of a technocrat who was expected to operate largely 
behind the scenes, fixing broken pieces of the 
intelligence bureaucracy. 

Instead, he has been pulled into politically charged 
debates over intelligence issues including CIA 
interrogation tactics and how much authority the 
government should have to eavesdrop on phone calls 
going into or out of the United States. 

"He's in largely unknown territory here," said Mark 
Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official and previous 
staff director of the House Intelligence Committee. 
"No previous DNI or [CIA director] has had to engage 
in such a public political debate about the authorities 
of the intelligence community." 

McConnell's role as the Bush administration's point person 
on espionage legislation is particularly unusual. U.S. 
intelligence chiefs have periodically been at the center 
of political storms over botched spy operations or pitched 
nomination fights. But they have traditionally been 
expected to remain insulated from policy issues, not to 
function as administration lobbyists on controversial 
pieces of legislation. 

A spokesman for McConnell said that the director's dealings 
with Congress were "always in good faith." 

"He values the relationship with Congress," said the 
spokesman, Michael Birmingham. "He works at it, and he 
invites and welcomes the oversight they provide." 

The House defied McConnell and the Bush administration last 
month by passing an eavesdropping bill without provisions 
that he and the White House had called essential. 

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The main point of contention has been over whether to give 
retroactive legal protection to U.S. phone companies that 
are facing dozens of lawsuits for letting U.S. spy agencies 
monitor calls and e-mails traveling across their networks. 

House Democrats have resisted granting such immunity, say-
ing it would give companies a pass for taking part in what 
some describe as an illegal spying operation. But both 
sides have agreed on giving the companies legal protection 
for current and future assistance. 

Beyond their differences over that issue, some House 
members said they had become disenchanted with McConnell 
because of his role in the extended debate. 

Many trace the animosity to last year, when Democrats 
accused the director of backing out of a deal they thought 
they had reached with him on a comprehensive eavesdropping 
bill. 

McConnell denies the two sides had reached a deal or that 
he succumbed to White House pressure. Aides say McConnell 
has not been doing the administration's bidding, but has 
taken positions that reflect his own views. 

Nonetheless, Democrats have since complained that McConnell 
has employed pressure tactics, including making alarming 
claims about the consequences of failing to pass the wire-
tapping legislation favored by the White House. 

In letters to lawmakers, McConnell warned that prolonged 
debate by the House was making the nation "more vulnerable 
to terrorist attack and other foreign threats." 

In a newspaper interview last year, he said that merely 
debating the issue meant that "some Americans are going to 
die," because terrorists and other adversaries would learn 
more about America's surveillance capabilities. 

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More recently, at a House hearing in February, McConnell 
was accused of offering misleading testimony when he warned 
that allowing temporary eavesdropping authority to lapse 
would cause phone companies to quit cooperating. 

"No, that's not correct. That's not correct," Rep. Anna G. 
Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) shot back. Democrats have said that 
the temporary law provides for continued private sector 
cooperation through the rest of this year. 

When the law did lapse, officials at the Director of 
National Intelligence Office and the Justice Department 
held a conference call with reporters to say that they 
were already seeing reduced cooperation and emerging 
intelligence gaps. But the next day the White House 
said that the major companies had all resumed complying. 

Last month's closed-door meeting involving McConnell and 
members of the House Intelligence Committee was arranged 
in part to allow them to discuss the issue away from the 
media glare. Some participants said it was successful. 

"I think the fact that it was open and argumentative at 
times was very positive," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppers-
berger (D-Md.). "I think he improved his relations [with 
the committee] just by communicating." 

Neither McConnell nor the ranking members of the House 
Intelligence Committee would comment on the meeting. 

The House and Senate have approved differing versions of 
the wiretapping legislation, and are expected to begin 
talks on reconciling those bills. Congressional officials 
said prospects for finding a compromise - as well as the 
role McConnell will play in that process - were unclear. 

"I feel he's an honorable person," Ruppersberger said. 
"Some of my peers feel he's compromised. I would say that 
on the majority side, we were not happy with some of the 
positions he took." 

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