As the debate over new espionage legislation intensified last week, senior Democrats in Congress gathered around a speakerphone late Thursday to work out with Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell what they thought were the final pieces of a deal.
Instead, the deal unraveled, according to officials involved. Compromise language was missing, provisions that both sides had agreed to strip out were back in, and -- according to officials familiar with the exchange -- McConnell alluded to intense pressure he was getting from “the other side.”
McConnell ended up getting the changes he wanted -- new authority that significantly expands U.S. spy agencies’ ability to intercept overseas e-mails and phone calls.
But his 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.
“I think that the admiral negotiated in good faith,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who was involved in negotiations with McConnell throughout the week. “But I think he got caught up there at the end in the politics of it.”
A retired Navy admiral with an almost academic demeanor, McConnell, 64, has spent most of his six months in the nation’s top espionage job making quiet internal changes in the sprawling intelligence community. Among his priorities have been giving agencies more incentives to work together and fixing problems in procurement systems for spy satellites.
But last week he plunged into what became a fierce political debate with significant implications, both for the war on terrorism and for the civil liberties of American citizens. 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.”
Referring to McConnell’s subsequent criticism of the Democrats’ bill, Hoyer said, “I will tell you, it doesn’t sound like the Adm. McConnell with whom I have talked over the past few weeks.”
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.”
In handling those negotiations, McConnell was thrust into a delicate position. 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.
“He is the president’s senior intelligence advisor, not Congress’ senior intelligence advisor,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former top CIA official and intelligence historian. But, he added, “I don’t think McConnell would ever allow himself to be put in the position of doing the bidding of the White House. It’s just not who the guy is.”
There were signs Tuesday that some Democrats still regarded McConnell as a trusted figure. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defended her vote for the Republican version of the spy bill in part by circulating a letter she had received from McConnell describing the ways that the intelligence community would safeguard U.S. citizens’ privacy under the new espionage authorities.
Other congressional officials said McConnell’s negotiations left Democrats feeling blindsided. These officials said McConnell had initially agreed to certain provisions -- including a sunset clause that would cause the legislation to expire in six months -- and then abruptly changed position. In the end, Democrats fought to get the sunset clause attached to the final Republican bill.