A knowledgeable government source says the account Admiral Mike McConnell gave to the House intelligence committee about the procedure for wiretapping Iraqi insurgents earlier this year is "really terrible."
McConnell told the committee today that restrictions derived by the FISA Court this year on wiretapping foreign-to-foreign communications that pass through the U.S. prevented the NSA from surveilling Iraqi insurgents who had kidnapped U.S. soldiers for 12 hours. But the source, who is privvy to the timeline of the incident, says "internal bureaucratic wrangling," and not court-based restrictions, were responsible for the lag time. "To get an emergency warrant, you just have to believe the facts support the application that someone is an agent of a foreign power," the source says. "That takes approximately five seconds to establish if you're going after an Iraqi insurgent."
Why did so much time elapse before the surveillance? Top Justice Department officials needed to approve the emergency order. But according to the source, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was out of town; Deputy AG Paul McNulty had resigned already; Solicitor General Paul Clement "had left the building"; and the other responsible official, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein was not yet authorized to approve the emergency order. Wainstein testified today, but demurred from answering questions about the incident in open session.
Despite McConnell's testimony today and Tuesday that the FISA Court unreasonably tied the NSA's hands in the case, the source says, "it stems from their own internal process, and it stems from their own reading" of the court's ruling.
More on this tomorrow.