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 government’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.
“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.
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, saying 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 wiretapping 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.
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 Ruppersberger (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.”