The Admiral Who Can’t Shoot Straight

It doesn’t take much to gain a reputation in Washington as a straight-shooter, and it takes a lot to lose it.

Adm. Mike McConnell came in as the Director of National Intelligence with a rep for being professional and non-partisan, a calling card the Bush Administration has put to its own uses. He has been the point man in what Marty Lederman has correctly identified as the Administration’s standard operating procedure when caught in conduct of dubious legality.

It starts, Lederman notes, with sending to Congress “messengers who the Intel committees trust — solemn, serious, professionals, often uniformed military officers.” That’s McConnell to a T.

In his first months as DNI, McConnell did plenty to undermine that rep. He told Congress that three German terrorism suspects had been arrested due to intercepts made possible by the then-new Protect America Act when in fact they were obtained under the old FISA law. Soon after, McConnell offered a especially misleading account to Congress of a supposed FISA Court ruling that had delayed the U.S. from spying on the kidnappers of U.S. troops in Iraq. And throughout congressional debate on a surveillance law he claimed that the debate itself endangered American lives.

Then earlier this year, he suggested that a questioner at a public event at Johns Hopkins was “disappointed” that the U.S. hadn’t suffered additional terrorist attacks. And now McConnell has really let lose, framing the Senate debate on the surveillance bill as being between those who think “we shouldn’t have an Intelligence Community” and those who do. That has prompted a letter from Sen. Russ Feingold demanding an apology for those false characterizations of the debate.

It’s an enviable track record in “straight-shooting.”

So what does it take to get knocked from that lofty Capitol perch occupied by so-called “straight-shooters”?

Here’s a promising sign. The L.A. Times reports today, in a piece headlined “Intelligence Director McConnell is Cast as a Lobbyist,” that Dems on the House intel committee are no longer buying McConnell’s schtick.

At a secret meeting with the committee last month McConnell was going through the usual motions of Lederman’s step one above, trying to promote a “calmer atmosphere” for future debate. But things deteriorated from there, and the Times reports that “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.

It’s easy to overstate the role of individual personalities in politics, but it’s probably no accident that the sheen of McConnell’s reputation has dulled just about the same time as House Dems have stood up to the White House on the surveillance bill.

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