Interview with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell

Mike McConnell, U.S. National Intelligence Director, gave an interesting interview to the El Paso Times.

I don't think he's ever been so candid before. For example, he admitted that the nation's telcos assisted the NSA in their massive eavesdropping efforts. We already knew this, of course, but the government has steadfastly maintained that either confirming or denying this would compromise national security.

There are, of course, moments of surreality. He said that it takes 200 hours to prepare a FISA warrant. Ryan Single calculated that since there were 2,167 such warrants in 2006, there must be "218 government employees with top secret clearances sitting in rooms, writing only FISA warrants." Seems unlikely.

But most notable is this bit:

Q. So you're saying that the reporting and the debate in Congress means that some Americans are going to die?

A. That's what I mean. Because we have made it so public. We used to do these things very differently, but for whatever reason, you know, it's a democratic process and sunshine's a good thing. We need to have the debate.

Ah, the politics of fear. I don't care if it's the terrorists or the politicians, refuse to be terrorized. (More interesting discussions on the interview here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Posted on August 24, 2007 at 6:30 AM • 41 Comments

Comments

vanguard missileAugust 24, 2007 7:00 AM

' since there were 2,167 such warrants in 2006, there must be "218 government employees with top secret clearances sitting in rooms, writing only FISA warrants." Seems unlikely. '

You're right - they're civil service; probably more like 436...

aikimarkAugust 24, 2007 7:15 AM

So just debating FISA-related topics is killing Americans?!? WTF

Fear mongering at its best.

BenAugust 24, 2007 7:49 AM

Not only did I think that quote was classic Bush administration, but it struck another chord with me, too: these people are the enemies of democracy. I found this comment sardonic: "it's a democratic process and sunshine's a good thing." Almost dripping with disdain. Quite disturbing.

JohnAugust 24, 2007 8:12 AM

So McConnell has to waste his time signing requests for warrants? So what. If that is too much for him he needs to find another job outside the bureaucracy.

Fraud GuyAugust 24, 2007 8:19 AM

"We used to do these things very differently, but for whatever reason, you know, it's a democratic process and sunshine's a good thing. We need to have the debate."

As opposed to what, an autocratic process? This reminds me of a teenager saying: "Yeah, well, whatever." as he's walking away from you.

neduAugust 24, 2007 8:59 AM

From the interview, McConnell talking about getting the new law through Congress:

"You can change a word in a paragraph and end up with some major catastrophe down in paragraph 27, subsection 2c, to shut yourself down, you'll be out of business. [...] [I]t's so complex, if you change a word or phrase, or even a paragraph reference, you can cause unintended ..."

Obviously, the statute is not robust. There appears to be too much coupling between words and paragraphs. The "team of 20 lawyers" doesn't seem to have created a very resilient structure.

Perhaps McConnell thought a brittle statute --that the judicial machinery has to interpret just so-- is some kind of feature. Of course, there are coders who think like that, too.

Carlo GrazianiAugust 24, 2007 10:14 AM

One can hardly blame McConnell for advocating for increased, legally untrammeled surveillance powers. After all, he's the Intelligence Director. He has no bureaucratic brief for protection of civil rights. His role within the bureaucracy is to advocate for increased resources and powers for the securocracy. He's just doing his job.

In the absence of a countervailing bureaucratic fiefdom arguing for civil liberties and privacy rights, it is the role of his political masters to moderate these requests, and balance them against the civil rights requirements of democratic governance [brief pause here so we may share a hollow laugh at the idea of General Secretary Bush or Commissar Cheney giving a rats' ass about civil liberties].

At the risk off setting of the usual round of libertarian foaming about government, bureaucrats, and politicians, I still believe that what we desperately need is the creation by statute of a new bureaucracy -- a Department of Civil Liberties, whose institutional role is to create a countervailing tension directed at curbing the otherwise unopposed authority grab by the securocracy. It should be created by an Act of Congress, so that the Secretary would be confirmed by -- and at least nominally accountable to -- the Senate.

Given the concomitant threats of fear politics and surveillance/data mining tech, I am personally doubtful that there will be much left to be proud of in the U.S. Constitution in the not-too-distant future, barring some such radical reform.

FPAugust 24, 2007 10:15 AM

Quote: "my previous assignment was director of the NSA"

With that background, it does not surprise me that Mr. McConnell is opposed to more transparency: "we should have the ability to do surveillance the same way we've done it for the past 50 years"

Read James Bamford's "The Puzzle Palace" for what they have done for the past 50 years.

The section about protecting the private sector from liabilities for breaking the law is scary.

PhillipAugust 24, 2007 10:22 AM

Hope your web provider company is good. Looks like you're about to get slashdotted.

neduAugust 24, 2007 10:36 AM

@Carlo Graziani,

Mr. McConnell's job is to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Maybe you don't get that. Maybe Mr. McConnell doesn't get that. But that's his job.

Jack MottAugust 24, 2007 10:56 AM

You are assuming the warrant process can't be pipelined, and it most certainly can!

MatthewAugust 24, 2007 11:20 AM

What several previous commentators fail to grasp in relation to sunshine and people dying is really very simple.

Hypothetically, I am monitoring what certain people are doing via a specific method and obtaining intelligence about activities they are planning. This information passes through them regularly and it allows me to notify others and potentially save lives. Someone comes along and notifies the public of specifically what I am doing and how I am doing it. I can no longer save any other persons life using that method that was leaked to the public because the people I was monitoring find a new way that I now need to discover and learn how to monitor. Whoever just announced my method to the public has ensured that other people will "not be saved" by using that method. It would not be far fetched to state that "People will die" because of this.

I agree more with the commentator that suggested a "Department of Civil Liberties". I do not need these secrets leaked to me. These secrets that if leaked may prevent us from saving lives. Neither in my opinion do my fellow citizens. However, there should be an independent body that is readily accountable to and accessible by the public that would be able to "Secretly review these questionable methods" and set balances and checks. These trusted government officials, should not be like so many of our congressmen and house officials who leak every other top secret document that they think will further their political agendas.

Certain things "require" secrecy for my government to protect me and I agree with that. If you do not understand that requirement then you are naive and should be forced to defend your country on the front lines under enemy fire. Then you will understand why certain government secrets keep people alive and why public disclosure of others ensures people will die.

Sitting in Jefferson's ShadowAugust 24, 2007 11:21 AM

"...a Department of Civil Liberties, whose institutional role is to create a countervailing tension directed at curbing the otherwise unopposed authority grab by the securocracy..."

We used to have something like that. It was called The Supreme Court of the United States. Alas, it has been loaded lately, with partisan lackeys who believe that many of our civil liberties are an impediment to their narrow little view of how things should work. Unchecked and unbalanced is how things work now.

dragonfrogAugust 24, 2007 11:49 AM

@ Matthew

"I do not need these secrets leaked to me. These secrets that if leaked may prevent us from saving lives. Neither in my opinion do my fellow citizens. However, there should be an independent body that is readily accountable to and accessible by the public that would be able to "Secretly review these questionable methods" and set balances and checks."

Checks and balances only work if their exact nature, their enforcement, actions taken when they are overstepped, and the specifics of all cases examined under these checks, are all public.

Otherwise what kind of significant check do we have? It goes from "You know we're not abusing your civil liberties, because we say we're not. No you can't see any proof." to "We're not abusing your civil liberties, because the Department of Civil Liberties says we're not. No you can't see any proof."

You could rename your "Department of Secretive Surveillance" to the "Department of Everyone Getting a Pony" and it wouldn't make a lick of difference, any more than making the Department of War a "Department of Defence" makes their actions defensive.

mjr1007August 24, 2007 11:59 AM

The security breech was all to predictable and preventable. By not following the rules these clowns insured that someone would leak the program. If they were truly interested in continuing to save lives they would have just followed the rules. It really is that simple.

This is a security disaster but the blame is really on the idiots who thought it was a good idea to break the law and not get the warrants. If they simply did their jobs and followed the law we would still have that method of surveillance.

It's hard to tell if it's laziness or arrogance but either way their stupidity has cost this country dearly. We should not forget this at the next election.

OBTW, the FISA court, not the Supreme Court is the countervailing bureaucracy.

Random ManAugust 24, 2007 12:01 PM

I want the National Bureaucracy Reduction Bill to be passed but then again by passing it it the law like most others becomes unenforceable due to the level of Bureaucracy needed to implement. Once bush is gone how many of these will be repealed?

MatthewAugust 24, 2007 12:12 PM

I agree that a lot of people are screwing up. If it wasn't for all these different agencies thinking that they could use the "International Intelligence" gathering operations for domestic purposes, then it would be less of a problem. A lot of this is being caused by the FBI, local, and federal police forces seeking to conduct and co-operate in international investigations of drug smuggling, money laundering, pornography, sex trafficking, etc. They see these major resources that should only be used for the defense of the country from foreign armies and terrorism and attempt to subvert that separation for to use the resources in their own fields of responsibility.

I believe that this partly came about because of all the stupidity related to 9/11 where the big crisis was that all the different intelligence agencies were not working closely enough with one another. Viola, now you have no separation of foreign and domestic security.

Unfortunately, I do not know how to resolve the deplorable political environment that we have allowed to be created. There is just so little representation of anyone who can't write a big check for donations or be used as a political sympathy totem.

CGomezAugust 24, 2007 12:21 PM

Easy to blame the administration, but lets not forget the Democratic controlled Congress was in a rush to approve they very same FISA and wiretapping rules that supposedly are evil and problematic.

I think we can fairly debate what powers law enforcement needs to have and what needs to be protected as rights, but there is little actual difference between the parties or any person in power.

Both sides talk big and use politics and fear, then they pass these types of legislation by overwhelming votes. The Patriot Act was passed with 98 votes in the Senate.

To claim that your favorite Senator was fooled or misled just means you need to elect a new Senator. Some (not all, but some) members of Congress have the same clearances as the President. Either the Senator claiming to be misled is lying, or is an idiot. Take your pick.

While I am no fan of the administration, it is important that we all recognize that there are more bums to throw out than just the executive branch. The entire legislative branch thinks these are important powers too. They throw up nice soundbites about how American rights are being trampled, but then you see everyone vote for the same bills.

Something doesn't add up.

GBAAugust 24, 2007 12:38 PM

There is no constitutional requirement for the executive branch to heed the FISA court. The enumerated powers of the executive cannot be ceded to a judiciary body created by congress; even if all parties think it's a good idea. To make the court more than wankery would require amending the constitution.

The creation of a proceduralist bureaucracy to second-guess the intelligence community will in the end be a much bigger threat to your privacy than any number of NSA analysts who *might* be listening in on your cell calls.

mjr1007August 24, 2007 1:02 PM

CGomez wrote:
Easy to blame the administration, but lets not forget the Democratic controlled Congress was in a rush to approve they very same FISA and wiretapping rules that supposedly are evil and problematic.

mjr1007 responded:
There is a big difference between someone who doesn't have the balls/ovaries to stand up to a bully and the bully. The Administration was definitely driving the train on this one.

CGomez wrote:
it is important that we all recognize that there are more bums to throw out than just the executive branch.

mjr1007 responded
True, but the executive branch is definitely a good place to start.

GBA wrote:
There is no constitutional requirement for the executive branch to heed the FISA court. The enumerated powers of the executive cannot be ceded to a judiciary body created by congress; even if all parties think it's a good idea. To make the court more than wankery would require amending the constitution.

mjr1007 responded:
If the executive branch is breaking the law then they can be tried and convicted. If the executive branch refuses to bring the case the head of the executive branch can be impeached. It's not a perfect system, but it does have checks and balances.

gopiAugust 24, 2007 3:53 PM

I'm very curious what they need to spend 200 hours doing for one of these warrants.

Shouldn't they have the sort of information needed to convince a judge easily at hand before they start a wiretap regardless of the rules? How much work does a FISA warrant request need beyond a reasonable and normal level of due diligence?

If the NSA needs to spend 200 hours finding out a suspect's first algebra teacher's mother's maiden name, then something needs to be done. But it seems to me that sorting out the warrant process so that it requires little more than the amount of research that *should* be done before wiretapping would be a more reasonable solution than eliminating FISA.

Matt from CTAugust 24, 2007 5:33 PM

GBA wrote:
There is no constitutional requirement for the executive branch to heed the FISA court.

U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 1:
The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.

Section 2. The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States...

Maybe you got a different copy of the Constitution then the rest of us. Except for those who use excuses like the "Constitution is a living document!" to impose their political points of view, it is impossible to interpret those in any way other then Courts created by Congress have an absolute duty and obligation to be the Judicial body of the U.S.

Matt from CTAugust 24, 2007 5:52 PM

Politicians use fear? Really?

Patrick Leahy, 1994:

I don't think the -- anytime that I can remember
when the American people's concern about crime and our vulnerability
to crime has been greater than it is today. We see in the terrorist
bombing of the World Trade Center something that paralyzed not only a
great city but in many ways much of the rest of the nation as that was
sorted out. We saw the exposure of a foreign spy within the upper
echelon of our intelligence agency. We hear the reports of violent
crime in virtually every part of our country, whether it's in urban or
rural areas.

http://www.eff.org/Privacy/Surveillance/CALEA/freeh_031894_hearing.testimony

No CALEA that Leahy was so proud to sponsor -- to require that companies make wiretapping something that was a cinch to do in modern digital networks, there would be no Leahy today bloviating about the Bush's Administrations use of it.

Pat CahalanAugust 24, 2007 7:00 PM

@ Matthew

> Someone comes along and notifies the public of specifically what I am doing and how
> I am doing it. I can no longer save any other persons life using that method that was
> leaked to the public because the people I was monitoring find a new way that I now
> need to discover and learn how to monitor.

You're making more than a few assumptions here. First, that it is *possible* for the people that you were monitoring to change methods. Second, that those people will be smart enough to change methods. Finally, that there is a significant barrier for you to monitor their new new method.

The NSA wiretap program, if it is using technology that is available and is as widespread as is generally reported, can more or less monitor every unencrypted conversation passing through the US telecommunications network, and do traffic analysis on the encrypted traffic.

Every telecommunications company that operates in the US is required by CALEA to have hooks in place to allow the government to eavesdrop on telecommunications. This means that basically any phone service that doesn't do "at the ends" encryption can be slurped by the feds.

If a terrorist is using a cell phone in the US, they can be eavesdropped on if they use the phone. They don't have sat-phones, it's not like they can simply switch to using a semaphore to talk to headquarters. And, of course, if they're using encryption technology at the handset, this is going to raise a red flag on the monitoring solution the NSA is using, and therefore be subjected to traffic analysis.

Now, they can still communication via other methods, but the same traffic analysis holds true.

GBAAugust 24, 2007 8:03 PM


[Matt]
Section 2. The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States...

Maybe you got a different copy of the Constitution then the rest of us. Except for those who use excuses like the "Constitution is a living document!" to impose their political points of view, it is impossible to interpret those in any way other then Courts created by Congress have an absolute duty and obligation to be the Judicial body of the U.S.
[/Matt]

No Matt, "law & equity" does not extend to an infringement upon the powers vested in the executive by Art.2 Sec. II, as exercised during wartime. Congress cannot create by statute an intrusion upon another coequal branch of government.

Group Capt. Lionel MandrakeAugust 24, 2007 8:33 PM

[GBA]
No Matt, "law & equity" does not extend to an infringement upon the powers vested in the executive by Art.2 Sec. II, as exercised during wartime. Congress cannot create by statute an intrusion upon another coequal branch of government.
[/GBA]

No, you see, GBA, here on earth, where most of us reside, "wartime", as envisioned by the Constitution, is a state of affairs which can only be created by the Congress in a "Declaration of War" - something that "AUMF" was not and was never meant to be.

The Executive cannot assert a state of wartime into being - it is simply not within the enumerated powers.

TomAugust 24, 2007 10:33 PM

CGomez wrote:
Easy to blame the administration, but lets not forget the Democratic controlled Congress was in a rush to approve they very same FISA and wiretapping rules that supposedly are evil and problematic.

mjr1007 responded:
There is a big difference between someone who doesn't have the balls/ovaries to stand up to a bully and the bully. The Administration was definitely driving the train on this one.

Tom replies:
Those who voted for the bill equally deserve contempt. The problem with blaming the Democrats is that most of them voted against it, 58-209-15. The Republicans voted 229-2-20.

outothewoodsAugust 25, 2007 12:49 AM

Its so sad to think that every word spoken here is being scrutinised *even as we speak* and probably regarded by those it concerns as *subversive*!

AnonymousAugust 25, 2007 12:21 PM

Latency Versus Throughput

$ time sleep 1

real 0m1.010s
user 0m0.000s
sys 0m0.000s

Unremarkably, I can run several parallel instances of this program and they all complete in roughly a second. In large bureaucracies, as in computer systems, you deal with resource contention and the resultant queues. In a good bureaucracy, as in a good operating system, your wait time on a resource is not spent in a spin loop. You do other things in the meanwhile, thus preserving total throughput of the system. All the same, you incur latency on specific actions, and latency matters.

CoyoteAugust 25, 2007 12:36 PM

Excellent. The mere act of asking "Should we be letting people freely eavesdrop?" will kill lots of people.

What's going to happen? The "terrorists" are going to say "Ah ha! The foolish Americans are questioning their government! That makes them weak! We must blow up a school bus now!"

Or, perhaps a terrorist somewhere is going to suddenly think, "A ha! Now I know that the telecommunications companies are handing over information! I will pass notes by carrier pigeon and through informal meetings now! Good thing we found out that someone might be listening in on our phone, email, and other transmissions!"

It's gonna kill people, huh? Do I get to pick the people? Perhaps I'm just being cranky.

ReasonAugust 25, 2007 2:35 PM

I think there's that pesky blurry line between real Constitutional concerns, and plain old Libertarian constipation.

Who cares really? How many of you whiners have actually been bothered by anyone monitoring your boring cell phone calls about your stupid credit card statements?

Are you talking about anthrax cultivating on a regular basis? No? Are you doing any sort of thing in order to hide a $12,000,000 dollar purchase/sale you shouldn't have made? No? Make any bombs lately? Do any Google searches on how to make bombs? Got any buddies with aspirations to become suicide bombers? Doing any online postings concerning your troubles finding and/or downloading your supply of kiddie porn? If the answer's 'no' than you are worrying for nothing.

(If 'yes' you deserve the sucker-punch you'll get, legally or otherwise). To think that Uncle Sam's even half interested in your naughty phone calls to your fat girlfriend speaks of an inflated self importance. A dose of reality is in order.

GBAAugust 25, 2007 2:47 PM

[Group Captain]
No, you see, GBA, here on earth, where most of us reside, "wartime", as envisioned by the Constitution, is a state of affairs which can only be created by the Congress in a "Declaration of War" - something that "AUMF" was not and was never meant to be.
The Executive cannot assert a state of wartime into being - it is simply not within the enumerated powers.
[/Group Captain]

Were I the executive, I'd be willing to bet that the AUMF would hold up in court as equivalent to a declaration of war, and that I could ignore FISA (despite the squealing of those who think it means *anything*), because even my political opponents know that it is a poorly-formed law, and won't risk a constitutional challenge which would only prove it-they will only huff and puff and in the end, quietly not do anything.

Now, Group Captain, does that sound like a planet you have a passing familiarity with?

mjr1007August 25, 2007 2:55 PM

If the government was truly interested in stopping terrorism then it would put in place policies that stop sending billions of dollars to those who fund the terrorist.

What kind of idiot says that if we stop driving gas hogs to purchase lead painted Chinese made crap, the terrorist have won.

We need to reduce energy consumption and switch to renewable energy sources. If we do that then the terrorist problem will be greatly reduced.

Pat CahalanAugust 26, 2007 9:23 AM

@ Reason

> To think that Uncle Sam's even half interested in your naughty phone
> calls to your fat girlfriend speaks of an inflated self importance. A dose of
> reality is in order.

Who is "Uncle Sam"? Ten government employees? A hundred? Ten thousand? How long is this data kept? How secure is the database? Can the newest whiz kid break into it? Who gets to see this information? How do you know they're not motivated politically ("Whoa, Mike Huckabee is sleeping with a prostitute? My God, this guy could be president! I'll leak this to my buddy at The Washington Post!")? How do you know they're not motivated fiscally ("Hrm, this guy is cheating on his wife, maybe she'd pay for that information.")?

Quite frankly, if the government is eavesdropping on *my* phone calls, I'm only a little bit concerned (because I'd like to know why) but otherwise its no big deal. But this is a far cry from the government monitoring *everybody's* phone calls.

@ GBA

You're doing a bait and switch. Your initial statement was that the Executive didn't have to follow FISA. Then you said that the Executive doesn't have to follow FISA because we're at war. Now you're saying that the Executive could argue that the AUMF is the equivalent of a statement of war if challenged, and that FISA is a bad law to begin with.

Build your own argument instead of firing different objections at others -> what's your actual position here? That FISA is a bad law? You mention Article 2, Section II (reproduced here for reference):

[quote]

Section 2. The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.

[/quote]

I'm afraid I don't see *anything* in Article 2, Section II that mentions any powers granted to the Executive over the authorities of the legislative or judicial branches. Since illegal search and seizure is defined by the Constitution and legal precedent established by the judiciary, not defined by the Executive branch, I fail to see how FISA inflicts in any way upon Article 2, Section II *even during wartime*.

While you're correct that FISA isn't a great law, I hope you agree that it is *clearly* outside the bounds of the Executive branch to order blanket surveillance of US citizens, even if that blanket surveillance is only used to find and target particular US citizens who may be talking to particular foreign agents.

StineAugust 26, 2007 6:52 PM

@GBA

And if you were such an executive that would ignore the SCOTUS and Congress, I'd be willing to take a few shots at you.

Thomas PaineAugust 29, 2007 6:47 AM

This man is extremely incoherent. I wouldn't trust him to run a Dairy Queen, let alone the NSA.

"The FISA court ruled presented the program to them and they said the program is what you say it is and it's appropriate and it's legitimate, it's not an issue and was had approval."

What on earth does he mean? The whole interview is like that.

GBAAugust 29, 2007 10:06 PM

To Pat:

An argument can be made that certain exercise of Article 2 powers, under certain circumstances, fall exclusively to the Executive, with no oversight by either of the other two branches. This was the sort of thing that got discussed sixty-odd years ago in Quirin, and later in Sawyer.

I don't understand what any executive in this position can do, other than:

1. Wait for bad things to happen, and then make arrests.

2. Break laws (of admittedly dubious constitutionality) in the hope of being better at preventing bad things from happening.

I'll take #2, but it does put me in an awkward spot. These are tough questions....

As for Stine, were I such an executive, I'd lose little sleep over people like you. The tinfoil hoodie usually makes for poor marksmanship. Take all the shots you want.

dcdaveSeptember 11, 2007 2:45 PM

I worked under Mr. McConnell, and have to say he has been one of the primary proponents of 'transparency' (agencies sharing information) for the purpose of preventing events such as 9/11, and Homeland Security (in fact helped create both while I was there).

His intent and ours was to help this country, and has been often and variously misinterpreted in many ways.

My experience with him is that he is our friend, rather than our enemy.

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