Administration: Politicizing Intelligence

In his confirmation hearing, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell pledged to Congress: "I will be open to your questions, ideas, and proposals. I will use my interaction with the Committee as important input in shaping my recommendations and actions." But recent revelations show that McConnell has quickly shunned openness -- and honesty -- with Congress in favor of his role as "the prime Bush administration advocate" for making the Protect America Act permanent.

SEPTEMBER 13, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Ali Frick, and Jeremy Richmond
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Politicizing Intelligence

In his confirmation hearing, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell pledged to Congress: “I will be open to your questions, ideas, and proposals. I will use my interaction with the Committee as important input in shaping my recommendations and actions.” But recent revelations show that McConnell has quickly shunned openness — and honesty — with Congress in favor of his role as “the prime Bush administration advocate” for making the Protect America Act permanent. The Protect America Act was passed last month just prior to Congress’s summer recess, and it greatly expanded the President’s surveillance authority without court oversight. McConnell’s attempts reflect the Bush administration’s general regard that it is “one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious [FISA] court.” “I am not a policy maker, and I’m not a political figure,” McConnell has countered. But as Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) observed, “[H]e is getting a whole lot of experience very quickly.”

LYING TO CONGRESS: In testimony this week, McConnell claimed the Protect America Act — which expires in five months — helped prevent an attempted terrorist attack in Germany. “The newly adopted law facilitated [thwarting the attacks] during August?” asked Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT). “Yes, sir, it did,” replied McConnell. But a government official “said those intercepts were recovered last year under the old law” and that McConnell may have “misspoken.” House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) wrote to McConnell urging him to back up his claims, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) said he had made a false claim to Congress. McConnell himself conceded last night, “[I]nformation contributing to the recent arrests was not collected under authorities provided by the Protect America Act.” Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) explained that the German plotters “were under surveillance for 10 months.

‘SELECTIVE DISCLOSURE’ OF SECRETS: When Congress requests information on the administration’s spy program, the administration often claims such information is “classified and sensitive, and therefore cannot be discussed,” noted Conyers. For instance, two weeks ago, the Justice Department “filed a brief opposing the public release of secret legal opinions about the [wiretapping] program,” claiming that it would “cause serious damage to the national security of the United States.” But in an interview with the El Paso Times last month, McConnell “raised eyebrows” by “pulling the curtain back” and revealing “previously classified details of government surveillance.” He exposed that it allegedly takes 200 hours to process a FISA-warrant request and confirmed, for the first time, private sector involvement — revealing more “than did the entire Congressional debate.” Noting this irony, Conyers wrote to McConnell urging him to explain why he divulged those secrets to the media while previously claiming “in litigation that confirmation of such involvement cannot be permitted under the state secrets doctrine?” Conyers also observed that McConnell’s public claims about the German terror attacks were another case of “selective disclosure of classified information.

In the effort to drum up support for Bush’s expanded spy authority, McConnell has stepped up his fearmongering. Alleging a “period of heightened threat” to the U.S. homeland, McConnell asked Congress just before August recess to “act immediately” to make changes in current law because of “burdensome court orders.” Columnist E.J. Dionne said the rushed FISA debate was immersed in a “climate of fear and intimidation.” In his interview with the El Paso Times, McConnell warned that “Americans are going to die” if public debate about wiretapping continued (while divulging the secrets anyway). Similarly, McConnell told the Senate Homeland Security Committee last week that “50 percent of our ability to track, understand and know about these terrorists” would be lost without FISA expansion. In his statement yesterday, McConnell did not apologize but rather used it as another opportunity to call for Congress to authorize expansion of the administration’s spying authority.

THE NEXT STEPS: Last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) expressed his “disappoint[ment]” with the rushed process that led to the new law expanding Bush’s powers and urged Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) to “conduct vigorous and comprehensive oversight of [its] implementation” until the law sunsets in five months. Reid said that he supports Congress working towards a “longer-term statutory change that better serves American national security interests and comports with the Constitution and proper judicial and congressional oversight.” Next Tuesday, McConnell will testify before the House Judiciary Committee “to discuss changes to FISA.”


IRAQ — TWO OF SEVEN SOLDIERS WHO WROTE NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED DIE IN IRAQ: Two of the seven active duty soldiers in the 82nd Airborne who wrote an Aug. 19 op-ed in the New York Times died in an accident in Iraq on Monday. Sgt. Omar Mora and Sgt. Yance Gray were killed when their vehicle overturned in western Baghdad. News of their deaths reached Washington as Gen. David Petraeus wrapped up his testimony to Congress about the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq. The soldiers’ op-ed challenged overly simplistic press accounts of “progress” in Iraq, and reminded readers that the war had “robbed [Iraqis] of their self-respect” as the Americans had become “an army of occupation.” The soldiers’ courage to speak out about their experiences in Iraq helped change the debate in Washington. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) read from soldiers’ op-ed during Tuesday’s hearing, and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) referred to the column to challenge Petraeus’s rosy assessments of the progress in Iraq: They laid out a pretty different scenario, General, Ambassador, from what you’re laying out today.” Mora’s stepfather said that his son believed the “situation in Iraq was desperate” and was sad that children in Iraq were “having to live” with the war going on. Mora and Gray each leave behind a wife and young daughter.

HUMAN RIGHTS — SENATE INTELLIGENCE PANEL TELLS HAYDEN TO WITHDRAW TORTURE-APPROVING NOMINEE: “Members of the Senate intelligence committee have requested the withdrawal of the Bush administration’s choice for CIA general counsel,” John Rizzo, the Washington Post reports today. Rizzo’s nomination has been stalled since his June confirmation hearing, when he refused to disavow his approval of a 2002 memo that stretched the definition of torture by arguing that physical pain must be “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” in order to be considered torture. Unsatisfied with Rizzo’s testimony, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) placed a hold on his nomination. Pressure against Rizzo increased on Monday when a coalition of human rights and advocacy groups sent a letter to the committee, urging the panel to reject Rizzo’s nomination. “Two U.S. officials familiar with the committee’s decision said the request for Rizzo’s withdrawal has been conveyed to Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA’s director.” Though “CIA officials declined comment on whether a formal request had been received,” a spokesman for the agency “said Hayden continues to support Rizzo’s nomination.”

ETHICS — LAW SCHOOL DEAN FIRED FOR LIBERAL VIEWS: On Sept. 4, the new law school at the University of California at Irvine hired Erwin Chemerinsky, a well-known constitutional scholar, as the school’s inaugural dean. Less than a week later, Michael V. Drake, Irvine’s chancellor, fired him, “saying that he had not been aware of how Chemerinsky’s political views would make him a target for criticism from conservatives.” The law school, which recently sold the rights to its name to Donald Bren, billionaire real estate broker and long time Republican donor, for $20 million, will restart its search for a new dean this week. Chemerinsky expressed regret about the situation: “Obviously I’m sad because it’s something I was excit[ed] about. I’m angry because I don’t believe anyone liberal or conservative should be denied a position like this because of political views.” Last year, Chemerinsky was named one of the “top 20 legal thinkers in America,” and his hiring was initially considered a major accomplishment for the fledgling law school.


At a White House meeting this week, President Bush told Democratic leaders said he planned to “start doing some redeployment.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) immediately interjected: “No you’re not, Mr. President. … You’re just going back to the presurge level.”

Citing remarks about troop withdrawals by Gen. David Petraeus, “Democrats began a fresh campaign Wednesday to woo centrist Republicans on Iraq.” “Petraeus assured me that he favors continuing reductions beyond the pre-surge levels,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) blasted Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell yesterday for taking political orders from the White House. Harman ended her comments by saying, “Jane to Mike: please stop. You’re undermining the authority of your office.”

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is poised to reexamine “the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in coming weeks.” Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) “issued letters to a range of Abramoff associates seeking information about his contacts with the White House.”

78 years: The life expectancy for Americans, according to new government figures from 2005. While the span is the longest in U.S. history, it is still “lower than the life span in more than three dozen other countries.” 

16,306: Number of species “near extinction” according to the World Conservation Union, up from 16,118 last year. Experts attributed the jump in endangered species to habitat loss, climate change, and infectious diseases.

At a Senate hearing yesterday, lawmakers investigated the influx of toys from China with lead paint and other defects. The Washington Post writes that instead of showing contrition, Nancy Nord — the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission — “treated lawmakers as if they were impertinent children.”

“A carefully constructed compromise on a draft law governing Iraq’s rich oil fields, agreed to in February after months of arduous talks among Iraqi political groups, appears to have collapsed. The apparent breakdown comes just as Congress and the White House are struggling to find evidence that there is progress toward reconciliation and a functioning government.”

“A bomb ripped through a crowd of civilians at a public square in eastern Baghdad on Thursday,” shattering the calm on the first day of Ramadan — the Muslim month of fasting — and killing at least four people, Iraqi officials said.

And finally: On Monday, House members held candles to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary. All was “well and good” until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) candle-card “caught on fire in the middle of her remarks. Ever the cool customer, the speaker threw it to the ground and stomped it out with her foot, never once breaking stride in her speech.” Rep. Steve Cohen’s (D-TN) candle-card also caught on fire. See pictures HERE.

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“No, benchmarks were something that Congress wanted to use as a metric.”
— White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, 9/12/07


“It was the White House and the Iraqi government, not Congress, that first proposed the benchmarks for Iraq that are now producing failing grades, a provenance that raises questions about why the administration is declaring now that the government’s performance is not the best measure of change.”
— New York Times, 9/5/07

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