Wire tapping, and more

No big surprise here, but an important admission from Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence. In a letter to Arlen Specter (Penn.), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, McConnell acknowledges that the president authorized the National Security Agency to undertake “various intelligence activities,” after the 9/11, aimed at preventing another terrorist attack. I and others have reported on some of these activities over the past year-and-a-half, but McConnell’s letter marks the first time any administration official has so publicly acknowledged that the NSA is doing more than just “wire tapping,” or intercepting phone calls.

Presumably, McConnell’s letter is meant to provide legal cover for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose testimony about his 2004 nighttime visit to John Ashcroft’s hospital room left Specter and his colleagues wondering if Gonzales had told them the whole truth about internal disagreements over the NSA “program” at the Justice Department. Gonzales tried to tell Senators that there was no disagreement over the program that the president acknowledged back in December 2005, which McConnell now says was just the wiretapping component, or, in his words, “the targeting for interception without a court order of international communications of Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist organizations coming into our going out of the United States.”

McConnell is asking members of Congress to change the law that governs such interceptions–the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act– and apparently there’s significant disagreement over whether it can be applied to totally “foreign” communications that still pass through cables in the United States.

McConnell’s letter to Specter can be viewed in light of his very public lobbying efforts, and not solely as a blocking maneuver for Gonzales. Putting it out there that the NSA is, in fact, undertaking other intelligence activities under presidential order strengthens his argument that the intelligence laws need significant overhaul, not just minor tweaking. Remember, McConnell is a former NSA director, and has strong opinions on adapting intelligence laws to the hunt for terrorists. McConnell also led Booz Allen Hamilton’s intelligence division–after leaving NSA–and was involved in the Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness program, another effort to track terrorist movements and anticipate their plots.

Bottom line: McConnell has been trying to “modernize,” if you like, the intelligence community for the past several years. He has been more public about these efforts than many senior intelligence officials, and will continue to be so. He’s not the spokesman for this effort just because he’s the DNI–this is a personal mission for McConnell, as well.

UPDATE: According to the AP, Democratic leaders are signaling that a deal on FISA might be imminent.