Demonizing the DNI

Rep. Rush D. Holt of New Jersey looked across the House Intelligence Committee table at Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Mike McConnell last week and said evenly: “There’s some doubts about your ability to act as an unbiased source of information.”

Even as an isolated incident, this would be remarkable. A very partisan Democrat with a nearly perfect liberal voting record was telling a senior career intelligence officer that he is a liar. That abuse usually is reserved for political appointees.

But this was no isolated event. Holt is a small cog in a large machine of Congressional Democrats who have defamed McConnell over the past month as a shill for the Bush Administration. That preceded recent Democratic attacks, led by Sen. Hillary Clinton, labeling the respected military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, as George W. Bush’s mouthpiece.

The pattern is clear. Professional security officials who follow the orders of their commander-in-chief, the President of the United States, can await demonization by the opposition in Congress.

That was nothing Vice Adm. (Ret.) J. M. (Mike) McConnell expected Jan. 7 when President Bush talked him out of a high-paying job in the private sector to become DNI (vacant when John Negroponte, a career Foreign Service officer who was the first person to hold the new, very difficult position, was named Deputy Secretary of State).

Certainly, McConnell is no Republican. As a private citizen, he had been critical of the way the Bush Administration handled pre-war intelligence regarding Iraq. He worked in intelligence for 26 out of his 29 Navy active duty years, the last year four as National Security Agency director during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

McConnell found his hands full directing intelligence throughout a world filled with multiple trouble spots. To non-politician McConnell, the government’s program of listening in on suspected foreign terrorists was a no-brainer that should not have caused him any trouble.

McConnell was a still mainly a stranger to Capitol Hill this summer, and he was an unknown factor there. He surely did not realize he was venturing into treacherous waters when the White House asked him to negotiate with the House of Representatives an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) that permits electronic intercepts without a warrant.

On Aug. 2, McConnell engaged in a conference call with senior House Democrats gathered in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. McConnell said during the conference call: “I’ve spent 40 years of my life in this business, and I’ve been shot at during war. I’ve never felt so much pressure in my life.”

As usual, no Republicans were permitted to take part in the call. Democrats claimed the Admiral agreed to their restrictive FISA version, but he is adamant that he did not. With McConnell thus refusing to give shaky Democrats cover for their soft bill, the party’s leadership had to succumb to the Administration.

Pelosi and company were furious. For the first time in his distinguished career, Mike McConnell had become a target. Holt accused him of an “unsatisfactory, even embarrassing performance.” Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York accused McConnell of accepting Democratic restrictions, “until he spoke to the White House, and now he changed politically.” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois came close to calling the Admiral a liar by saying: “He was not negotiating in good faith.”

Democratic animosity to McConnell was stoked when he told a senior Republican House member that the next time he negotiated with Democrats, he would be sure that a Republican was present — which I duly reported in my column.

McConnell now was the target for demonization, and he unwittingly perfected the accuracy of the demonizers Aug. 21 when he visited El Paso, Texas, for a conference on border security. He gave the El Paso Times an interview, saying that fewer than a hundred people inside the United States were under surveillance by the National Security Agency compared with thousands overseas whose conversations were tapped. McConnell was trying to show that the program was no threat to Americans’ civil liberties, but he was disclosing classified intelligence.

The DNI has a perfect right to declassify intelligence information, but McConnell had blundered. His best ally in Congress — Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee — telephoned McConnell to scold him privately.

But McConnell’s mistake fed into Democratic desires to undermine the nation’s chief intelligence officer. “I’m shocked,” sniped Rep. Jane Harman of California, a Democratic stalwart on the Intelligence Committee. “It is stunning to me to read that he has decided to share these details with a small-town newspaper.”

It won’t be long before Adm. McConnell is in the same category as Alberto Gonzales, Karl Rove — and George W. Bush.