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US Spy Chief Nominee To See Echoes Of Past In New Challenges February 1, 2007

Posted by notapundit in US News.

By Katherine Shrader

WASHINGTON (AP)–U.S. intelligence watches Iran’s activities outside its borders. Analysts keep an eye on Shiite uprisings in Iraq. There is controversy over how far the government can go in monitoring people’s communications at home.

Sounds like the present, but that was the situation that faced now-retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell in the 1990s when he held high posts in the National Security Agency, the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

If he is confirmed by the Senate, McConnell will face echoes of those issues as the nation’s second national intelligence director, charged with advising President George W. Bush and unifying 16 independent spy agencies. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are expected to weigh his credentials at a confirmation hearing Thursday.

McConnell, 63, has taken on ever-bigger assignments since he was commissioned a Navy line officer in 1967 and served in Vietnam. He made a name for himself as an intelligence briefer who could distill complex national security matters for presentation to military leaders, policymakers and at times the public.

By the time the Soviet Union fell and the 1991 Gulf War was fought, McConnell was the top intelligence official for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was meeting regularly with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell and other senior officials.

Fielding reporters’ questions at the Pentagon during the first Iraq war, McConnell delivered sometimes downbeat intelligence assessments amid the post-invasion elation that included the U.S. belief that Saddam Hussein and his loyalists would quell Shiite uprisings in southern Iraq. McConnell was right, and tens of thousands died.

He also answered questions on Iran that he will soon tackle again, as the United States tries to deal with Tehran’s nuclear program and involvement in Iraq. Among the issues in 1991: Was Iran’s Shiite government meddling in southern Iraq?

Answers were murky then. While there was no direct evidence linking Iran to the uprisings, McConnell suggested that Iran’s leaders, through public statements, had encouraged rebellion against Saddam.

McConnell sometimes made waves for skipping traditional Defense Department channels, but retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Buster Glosson, who planned the first air war against Iraq, called McConnell “the one person most responsible for the minimum loss of life” in that conflict. The two routinely spoke on secure phones, rather than passing reports through normal military systems.

On several occasions, Glosson said, McConnell called him when he discovered an allied country had given the U.S. bad information about seemingly tempting targets. In one case, the U.S. military was about to attack a spot where 200 members of the Kuwaiti resistance were hiding. The strike was aborted.

“Our intelligence structure was not as robust and as sound as it should have been when the Gulf War started,” Glosson said this week. “When you are prosecuting a war, many times you want to know something in real time.” McConnell, he said, got it.

By 1992, McConnell was running the NSA. It is the world’s largest spy agency, with a budget of roughly $8 billion and 30,000 employees worldwide, augmented by thousands of contractors and other intelligence officers spread across the military branches and elsewhere.

He arrived at a time of extraordinary change. The Soviet Union had recently collapsed and the NSA did not need the dozens of listening posts in the region to collect Moscow’s communications.

Facing slimming post-Cold War intelligence budgets, McConnell consolidated military code-making and code-breaking operations into three main bases in Georgia, Hawaii and Texas. Using satellites, experts say, these regional operating centers collected real-time information from remote-controlled listening posts.

“It is not an overstatement to say he saved military cryptology,” said CIA Director Michael Hayden, who led the NSA from 1999 to 2005.

NSA historian Matthew Aid, a former agency employee, said that change was forced on McConnell. Some, he said, fault him for not doing more to defend against budget cuts and for failing to get the NSA prepared for leaps forward in technology, such as fiber optics, cellular telephones and the Internet.

In a 1995 interview with The Sun in Baltimore, McConnell said the NSA was intercepting the equivalent of the entire collection of the U.S. Library of Congress every three hours. “But what Admiral McConnell did not say was that this was well beyond the capacity of NSA’s analysts and computers to process, much less digest,” Aid said.

Advances in technology bred new controversy then that the spy world still deals with today.

In a rare public appearance before Congress, McConnell defended the Clinton administration’s push for the so-called Clipper Chip – an encryption system developed by the NSA that gave the government a key to unlock electronic communications with court approval.

McConnell contended the system “actually enhances privacy protections when you consider that most people currently use no encryption. Widespread use of Clipper will make it easy for people to take advantage of the benefits that high-quality encryption offers,” he testified in 1994. But the industry and at least 250 members of Congress balked at the idea of giving the government a back door to communications.

Also on McConnell’s watch, he and other intelligence chiefs were called before Congress several times about their agencies’ poor record of hiring and promoting women and minorities. In 1995, McConnell professed progress but acknowledged work lay ahead.

Today, the demand for minorities remains high, particularly those who speak critical languages such as Farsi, Pashto or Urdu, and can blend into other cultures.

McConnell retired from government in 1996 and has spent the last decade with a private consultancy firm.

Near the holidays, Bush invited McConnell to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for a face-to-face meeting about his need for a new intelligence chief. It probably was the first of many sessions. Bush has long requested that his spy chief attend his daily intelligence briefing, six mornings a week.


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