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Chief Spy or Chief Enforcer?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
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.

But, Mazzetti writes: "In an interview in his office, Mr. McConnell insisted on Tuesday that he never felt direct pressure from the White House to reject the Democratic proposal, and that contrary to statements from senior Democrats he had never given a verbal commitment to their plan.

"Although he acknowledged that intense pressures from Capitol Hill during the debate over competing versions of the surveillance legislation, he said his job required him to remain 'apolitical' even in the midst of a partisan cyclone like last week's debate in Congress.

"'My job is to speak truth to power,' he said. . . .

"Representative Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called Mr. McConnell's role in the surveillance debate an 'unsatisfactory, even embarrassing performance.'

"'If a senior member of the intelligence community is going to speak truth to power,' Mr. Holt said, 'he has to be in the habit of presenting the unvarnished truth.'"

And, as Mazzetti notes: "Questions about the political distortion of intelligence have been a leitmotif of the Bush administration since the debates preceding the invasion of Iraq."

Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that some House Democrats were "upset by what they saw as a deliberate scuttling by the White House of negotiations on a compromise bill. On Thursday, Democratic leaders reached what they believed was a deal with the government's chief intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, only to be presented with a new list of conditions at the last minute.

"The White House and McConnell have denied that a deal had been reached.

"'I think the White House didn't want to take "yes" for an answer from the Democrats,' said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), an intelligence committee member."

Here is a statement McConnell put out on Friday, at the height of the administration's fear campaign, after reviewing a Senate Democratic bill: "The Majority Bill creates significant uncertainty in an area where certainty is paramount in order to protect the country. I must have certainty in order to protect the nation from attacks that are being planned today to inflict mass casualties on the United States."

The New York Times editorial board wrote yesterday: "Mr. McConnell certified that the House [Democratic] bill would address the problem raised by the court. That is, until the White House made clear that it wanted to . . . grab a lot more power. Mr. McConnell then reversed his position and demanded that Congress pass the far more expansive bill."

Andy Barr writes in the Hill newspaper about McConnell's post-victory attempt to make nice with the Senate: "Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell promised to keep Congress 'fully and currently informed' on powers granted to the intelligence community under an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which lawmakers passed before leaving for recess.

"In a letter . . . the intelligence chief thanked Congress for the passage of the legislation, which has already been signed into law, and vowed to report and remedy 'any incidents of non-compliance.'

"The commitment to greater openness, McConnell said in the letter, which was made public Tuesday, is consistent with the intelligence community's actions in testifying on behalf of the bill.

"'Leaders of the intelligence community,' McConnell claimed, 'went far further in open discussions than in any other time I can recall in my forty-year intelligence career.'"

Here's the letter, in which McConnell also repeats the official White House talking point that the new language "is aimed at restoring the effect of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) drafted in 1978."

But as Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times yesterday, it's not just Democrats and civil rights advocates but also news organizations that have come to the inescapable conclusion that the legislation is considerably more expansive than that -- effectively carving out a huge chunk of communications involving American citizens from the longstanding requirement that surveillance be accompanied by a court-approved warrant. (See yesterday's column.)

Making the White House Happy

The White House press office this morning called attention to these two opinion pieces on the new law.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes: "To hear the critics tell it, the warrantless wiretapping law passed by Congress this weekend is an immoral license for a mad President Bush and his spymasters to eavesdrop on all Americans. For those willing to believe such things, mere facts don't matter. But for anyone still amenable to reason, the deal is worth parsing for its national security precedents, good and bad."

On McConnell: "The first duty of Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell is to prevent the next terrorist attack, and it's disgraceful that some have vilified him for trying to revive our intelligence ability in that cause. His effort has been no different, and no less honorable, than a general arguing for more troops."

And, the Journal asserts: "Opposition from the Democratic left to this intelligence program isn't merely part of the partisan blood feud against a weak President near the end of his term. It is part of a far larger ideological campaign to erode Presidential war powers. Goaded by the ACLU and much of the press corps, many Democrats want to use the courts and lawsuits to restrict Mr. Bush and future Presidents in their ability to gather intelligence in the war on terror."

And dependable White House apologists David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey write in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece: "The amendments . . . permit interception of foreign communications directed into the United States, as long as a person in the U.S. is not the target of surveillance. Why the critics object to this provision on civil liberties grounds is unclear."

They argue further that the bill goes too far, not in violating civil liberties, but in restricting executive power.

Bush's Support

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "To see the type of person who still backs him, President Bush need only look in the mirror. The president fits the composite of today's Bush supporter: a conservative, white, Republican man, an evangelical Christian who goes to church regularly.

"Hammered by bad news in Iraq, congressional investigations and recent failed domestic initiatives such as immigration reform, Bush's job approval rating has spiraled to record lows for his presidency."

The Gallup Poll's Frank Newport blogs for USA Today about "some slight hints of positive news for the Bush administration."

But, he notes: "None of these numbers are in and of themselves the types of public approbation exciting enough to cause champagne corks to pop in the White House. After all, a job approval rating of 34% only looks good when it is compared to a declining job approval rating of 29%. And having 31% of Americans saying that the surge is making things better in Iraq is still far from a majority."

Katrina Redux, Part One

Spencer S. Hsu writes in the Washington Post: "A decision by the Bush administration to rewrite in secret the nation's emergency response blueprint has angered state and local emergency officials, who worry that Washington is repeating a series of mistakes that contributed to its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina nearly two years ago.

"State and local officials in charge of responding to disasters say that their input in shaping the National Response Plan was ignored in recent months by senior White House and Department of Homeland Security officials, despite calls by congressional investigators for a shared overhaul of disaster planning in the United States."

Katrina Redux, Part Two

Becky Bohrer writes for the Associated Press: "For New Orleans residents, the scene was all too familiar: President Bush, touring the site of the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, promising to cut red tape and rebuild as quickly as possible.

"Nearly two years ago, with parts of New Orleans still under water after Hurricane Katrina, Bush made similar declarations in the French Quarter. The president's promise was all Melanie Thompson needed to hear to bring back her family of five and begin work on their flooded home.

"But today Thompson's family is still living in a cramped trailer and awaiting aid to rebuild. Her hope and faith in government have faded and she worries for the people of Minneapolis.

"'I just hope to God they come to their rescue a lot quicker than they did ours,' she said."

Peter Busowski of New Orleans writes in a letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "When I heard President Bush promise to rebuild the Interstate 35W bridge, all I could think was, 'Haven't the people of the Twin Cities suffered enough?'"

Katrina Redux, Part Three

And over on NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, war correspondent Sig Christenson of the San Antonio Express-News worries that there are too many media restriction in Iraq -- and not enough reporters. The result, he warns, could be that "[i]nstead of seeing Iraq as it is, you'll see it the way someone with an agenda wants. . . .

"The last time we saw anyone pass off fantasy for reality and think they wouldn't get caught was in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Then, as now, politicians acted as if the rest of us were idiots, as if we would believe their words over the very stunning images that filled our television screens.

"Brownie was doing a heck of a job. President Bush, [had] his sleeves rolled up as if he were about to fill sandbags in the Lower 9th Ward. . . .

"Imagine if the government restricted the efforts of journalists to gather the news there. The entire country might have applauded as Bush gave Brownie a medal. This is what is at stake in Iraq."

Where's the Proof?

Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times: "Attacks on American-led forces using a lethal type of roadside bomb said to be supplied by Iran reached a new high in July, according to the American military."

Gordon notes how blaming Iran runs somewhat afoul of the other White House sanctioned message from military spokesmen: "Such bombs, which fire a semi-molten copper slug that can penetrate the armor on a Humvee and are among the deadliest weapons used against American forces, are used almost exclusively by Shiite militants. . . .

"In recent weeks, the American military has focused on mounting operations in sanctuaries used by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Sunni group that is predominately made up of Iraqis but has foreign leadership."

And where's the proof? There's none here. "American intelligence officials have presented evidence that the weapons come from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran," Gordon writes, "although Tehran has repeatedly denied providing lethal assistance to Iraqi group."

And where's the skepticism? Summarized in one paragraph: "Some critics of Bush administration policy, saying there is no proof that the top echelons of Iran's government are involved, accuse the White House of exaggerating the role of Iran and Syria to divert attention from its own mistakes."

Aggrandizing the Terrorists

Wesley K. Clark and Kal Raustiala write in a New York Times op-ed: "If we are to defeat terrorists across the globe, we must do everything possible to deny legitimacy to their aims and means, and gain legitimacy for ourselves. As a result, terrorism should be fought first with information exchanges and law enforcement, then with more effective domestic security measures. Only as a last resort should we call on the military and label such activities 'war.' The formula for defeating terrorism is well known and time-proven. . . .

"[T]he Bush administration's approach to terrorism has created more problems than it has solved. We need to recognize that terrorists, while dangerous, are more like modern-day pirates than warriors. They ought to be pursued, tried and convicted in the courts. At the extreme, yes, military force may be required. But the terrorists themselves are not 'combatants.' They are merely criminals, albeit criminals of an especially heinous type, and that label suggests the appropriate venue for dealing with the threats they pose."

Hear the Words of Osama

Bush repeatedly says it's important to listen to the words of Osama bin Laden and take them seriously. He also says that terrorists "hate us for our freedoms."

Reza Aslan writes in Slate: "A spate of books has appeared over the last year, gathering the words of America's enemies. The first and best of these is Messages to the World, a collection of Osama Bin Laden's declarations translated by Duke University professor Bruce Lawrence, in which Bin Laden himself dismisses Bush's accusation that he hates America's freedoms. 'Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden, for example?'"

Aslan notes: "If we are truly locked in an ideological war, as the president keeps reminding us, then our greatest weapons are our words. And thus far, instead of fighting this war on our terms, we have been fighting it on al-Qaida's."

Aslan quotes from a bin Laden statement: "Bush left no room for doubts or media opinion. He stated clearly that this war is a Crusader war. He said this in front of the whole world so as to emphasize this fact. . . . When Bush says that, they try to cover up for him, then he said he didn't mean it. He said, 'crusade.' Bush divided the world into two: 'either with us or with terrorism' . . . The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouths."

Vacation Watch

Edwin Chen writes for Bloomberg: "It's August in Washington and the city is emptying out.

"Members of Congress left over the weekend and won't be back until Sept. 4. President George W. Bush goes tomorrow to his family's seaside compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, for a long weekend before heading for his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Call it a recess, call it a break, just don't call it a vacation. . . .

"It's an especially sensitive topic this August because the administration and Congress put pressure on Iraq's parliament to work through the scorching Baghdad summer and pass legislation aimed at promoting political unity and stabilization. Paying little heed, the parliament on July 30 left for a month off.

"'It's better than taking two months off, which was their original plan,' Vice President Dick Cheney said in a July 31 interview on CNN.

"Cheney, 66, who left last weekend for his Wyoming ranch, quickly noted that the U.S. Congress 'of course takes the month of August off. . . .

"Bush's full August schedule hasn't been disclosed. He will be at the ranch for about half the month, interrupted by an Aug. 20-21 meeting with Canadian and Mexican leaders."

Tony Snow on Cancer

David Gregory interviewed White House Press Secretary Tony Snow on the NBC Nightly News last night.

The Associated Press reports: "Snow says he's hopeful he can overcome his latest bout of colon cancer, calling his high-stress job 'good therapy.' . . .

"'Medical technology is moving so quickly that, you know, if you buy yourself two or three years, you buy yourself 10 years,' said Snow, who . . . has been undergoing chemotherapy after doctors discovered a recurrence of his cancer in March."

Here is video of the entire interview.

Twice, Snow choked up when talking about his family. "It's great to love people this much," he said.

Gregory ended his report this way: "For the face of the White House, an uncertain future -- but a strong belief that life goes on."

Late Night Humor

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert approvingly cites Vice President Cheney's admonition that "we have to work the dark side" to defeat terrorism. But then he airs a new concern, in light of the recent passage of Bush's surveillance bill:

"The vice president knew that we cannot win this war if we go by the book. You do whatever it takes. You go beyond what's legal. You go past what's acceptable. But thanks to this new law, all that dark side is now allowed. And we know doing what's allowed is not enough. . . .

"Now that indefinite detention, enhanced interrogation and domestic spying are acceptable, it is getting harder and harder to find those things that we as Americans theoretically cannot bring ourselves to do."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Bush's stupid pet tricks.

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