President Bush accompanies McConnell during the ceremonial swearing-in to his position as the Director of National Intelligence.  (Source: The White House)
Seeks relief for a hamstrung intelligence community

National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell – the nation’s top spy – wants a new policy in place that gives the government expansive surveillance powers over web searches, internet activity, and e-mail.

Speaking in an interview and profile with The New Yorker’s Larry Wright, McConnell called the current rules on intelligence gathering “crazy” and outdated, and accused them of failing to properly take into account technological changes such as the Internet and e-mail. The article, titled “The Spymaster, ” appeared in the January 21 print edition of The New Yorker, and chronicles the history and motivations behind the “apolitical” man appointed in 2007 to unify the nation’s myriad  intelligence agencies.

FISA – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – is the biggest obstacle, argues McConnell, with its outdated rules creating absurd situations that needlessly hamstring intelligence efforts. Worse, U.S. lawmakers are continually dragging their feet, and he thinks that the policy of tweaking 30-year-old laws is insufficient. “If we don’t update FISA, the nation is significantly at risk,” said McConnell. He noted that the NSA’s monitoring capabilities dropped by 70 percent when federal judges entered a secret ruling that required warrants for intercepting traffic that “incidentally flowed” into domestic computer systems.

McConnell used the specific case of three captured U.S. soldiers, whose lives were endangered because intelligence analysts ran into the aforementioned limitations; analysts’ wiretapping efforts required a warrant because their communications “might pass electronically through U.S. circuits.”

McConnell thinks that recent efforts, like the stopgap Protect America Act of 2007, are merely lukewarm. Instead, McConnell thinks that the nation needs a new intelligence policy, one that takes present and future technology into account and lets intelligence agencies do their job. The costs will be high, however, as he fully believes that Americans are going to have to accept living under increased surveillance and curtail their expectations of privacy; “We have a saying in this business: ‘Privacy and security are a zero-sum game,’” said McConnell.

Fully aware of the intense resistance that his ideas will face, McConnell is undaunted. The current privacy/security debate is a “walk in the park” compared to his new plan, and he fully expects lawmakers to “screw around with this until something horrendous happens.”

Facing accusations of directly monitoring the actions of American citizens without a warrant, McConnell called them “totally untrue!” Wright noted that critics found a loophole that allowed intelligence agents to “reverse-target” Americans that “happened to be making international calls but had nothing to do with terrorism,” to which McConnell claimed would never happen: “That’s a violation of the constitution … we can’t do that, wouldn’t do that.” When innocent people are caught in the government’s dragnet – a point which he conceded as possible – agents are ordered to “destroy” the gathered intel.

Paradoxically, McConnell appears to carry a strong belief against spying on American citizens, despite his plans that would inadvertently force the contrary. The solution, he said, requires the restoration of government trustworthiness – and that in the current climate Congress has all the reason to be “wary of the intelligence community’s intentions.” (The NSA currently stands accused of ordering communications carriers to secretly tap into the U.S. internet backbone and make copies of all traffic for analysis.)

In addition to broadened surveillance powers, McConnell is pushing hard to tighten the government’s computer networks, which he said are dangerously vulnerable to attack. One of his biggest initiatives involves reducing the surface area available for attack: of the gateways separating government networks from the public internet, McConnell wants the current count – around 2,000 different access points – reduced to 50. He pointed out that the intelligence community’s culture is perpetually stuck in the past, and Wright noted that government agencies lag far behind the commercial sector in terms of technological prowess – a regression from the days of World War II, where many attribute the Allies’ victory to the embrace of a technological spirit that intelligence community now seems to reject.

When asked about whether the intelligence community’s infrastructure allowed for the kind of capability seen in movies like The Bourne Ultimatum – where CIA agents tracked the protagonist’s activities with instantaneous access to satellite feeds, surveillance cameras, passport controls, and other high-tech wizardry – McConnell called the “disappointingly low-tech” reality “horse pucky” compared to Hollywood’s imagination.

McConnell considers himself nonpartisan, claiming that he’s “not a Republican or a Democrat;” rather, his worry is “good government.” He admires President Lincoln, “who lead under intense political pressure,” particularly when he suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War to prevent Washington D.C. from becoming surrounded by enemy territory. “There are a lot of parallels,” said McConnell, “the current administration stands accused of spying on Americans. And I’m right in the middle of that.”

"If you look at the last five years, if you look at what major innovations have occurred in computing technology, every single one of them came from AMD. Not a single innovation came from Intel." -- AMD CEO Hector Ruiz in 2007

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