This won't help Adm. Mike McConnell's flagging credibility on Capitol Hill. On Monday, in response to questioning from Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), McConnell, the director of national intelligence, proudly claimed a victory for the new Protect America Act -- the broad new surveillance law McConnell helped push through Congress last month that revised the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. McConnell claimed that three German terrorism suspects arrested last week for plotting to blow up nightclubs frequented by U.S. military personnel had come to the attention of German authorities thanks to U.S. intercepts made possible by the new law.
Only one problem: it had been widely reported that the suspects had been under surveillance for months
. The Protect America Act wasn't even a month old at the time of their arrest. Almost immediately, intelligence officials queried by Newsweek
's Mike Isikoff and Mark Hosenball backtracked on McConnell's dubious statement.
Yesterday, bowing to pressure, McConnell released this statement retracting his claim:
During the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on September 10, 2007, I discussed the critical importance to our national security of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the recent amendments to FISA made by the Protect America Act. The Protect America Act was urgently needed by our intelligence professionals to close critical gaps in our capabilities and permit them to more readily follow terrorist threats, such as the plot uncovered in Germany. However, information contributing to the recent arrests was not collected under authorities provided by the Protect America Act.
This isn't the first time McConnell has issued hyperbolic statements about surveillance. In an August interview with the El Paso Times, McConnell said that "some Americans are going to die"
as the result of alleged intelligence disclosures made during the Congressional debate on reforming FISA -- before proceeding to, well, disclose previously-unknown intelligence. For good measure, McConnell said that it takes 200 man-hours to prepare a FISA warrant for a single phone number. Ryan Singel of Wired crunched the numbers and found that ratio would have meant government employees worked for 50,000 days just in 2006 to prep that year's warrant haul.
McConnell has come under heavy criticism from Hill Democrats for what they consider his bad-faith negotiations during the FISA debate. At a Council on Foreign Relations address, Rep. Jane Harman, the former top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, urged McConnell to "please stop undermining the authority of your office."
On Tuesday and Thursday, McConnell is scheduled to address two key House panels -- the Judiciary and Intelligence committees -- as they debate rolling back the Protect America Act. Expect them to grill him until he comes out medium-well as to why he said the act was responsible for the arrest of the Germans. Already HJC chairman John Conyers has asked (pdf) for an explanation.