Robert Novak

That left Democrats in a difficult position. Could they now go home for August without a surveillance bill passed and face Republican taunts that Congress was permitting terrorists to communicate freely? They had no choice but to permit the administration's bill to come to vote Saturday night just before adjournment for the recess, without imposing party discipline. Not a single Democrat spoke in favor of the bill. No committee chairman voted for it. But 41 House Democrats did -- mostly junior members, including 13 freshmen elected from competitive districts last year, as it passed 227 to 183. The bill also passed the Senate easily, supported by 16 Democrats.

To explain this defeat, Democrats in floor debate added McConnell to their rogue's gallery along with George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York suggested that the DNI accepted the Democratic restrictions "until he spoke to the White House, and now he changes politically." Off the House floor, one prominent Democrat said -- not for quotation -- that McConnell "was less than truthful." On the record, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel told me: "He was not negotiating in good faith."

What did McConnell say in his conference with the Democrats? The usually prudent House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was measured in floor debate, saying the DNI (in a "direct quote") informed the Democrats that their measure "significantly enhances America's security," adding: "I do not imply that he said he supported it." McConnell, a reticent professional intelligence officer, refused to talk to me about his comments to the Democrats. But Rep. Pete Hoekstra, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, talked with McConnell Saturday and Monday and told me: "He never had a deal with the Democrats."

In three decades of dealing with secrets of intelligence, Mike McConnell never was subjected to the abuse he encountered in these two House sessions when he was called a cowardly liar. With the Democratic activist base bitterly opposed to eavesdropping but the party's leadership wary of challenging President Bush on protecting the country from terrorism, the admiral became the scapegoat.

Robert Novak

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

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