Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- A sadder but wiser J. M. (Mike) McConnell, Director of National Intelligence (DNI), told a senior Republican House member last weekend that the next time he dealt with congressional Democrats he would make sure a Republican was in the room or on the phone. After a lifetime navigating the murky waters of intelligence, Admiral McConnell at age 64 was ill prepared for the stormy seas of Capitol Hill.

Late last Saturday, the Democratic-controlled Congress enacted a bill that is anathema to the party's base: authorization of eavesdropping on suspected terrorist conversations without a court warrant. It passed because Democrats could not take the political risk of going home for the August recess having shut off U.S. surveillance of threats to the country. But since they could not blame themselves, they blamed the non-political DNI.

At issue is whether McConnell, in a closed-door meeting, accepted a Democratic plan sharply limiting warrantless eavesdropping and then reneged under White House pressure. The Democratic leadership hoped the admiral's approval would give enough Republicans and Democrats cover to vote for their bill. Instead, his disapproval produced a rare breakdown in Democratic discipline during this Congress.

McConnell, who spent 26 of his 29 Navy active duty years in intelligence, is a gray spook not widely known on Capitol Hill until last week. After serving the last four years of his naval career as President Clinton's National Security Agency director, he never was considered a Republican. That was before last week's meeting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office with other key House Democrats with McConnell on the phone. As usual, no Republicans were invited, and the bill under discussion was not revealed to the GOP.

Hopes of passing the bill faded when McConnell issued a written statement saying, "I strongly oppose it," adding that it "would not allow me to carry out my responsibility to provide warning and to protect the nation." Nevertheless, Democratic leaders brought up their bill last Friday under a procedure requiring a two-thirds vote for passage to prevent the Republicans from offering a stronger substitute. The 218 to 207 vote fell far short.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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