Senate Considers McConnell for Top Intelligence Job
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Word is finally spreading about what U.S. intelligence agencies think of Iraq. Their findings are contained in a document that's been anticipated for months.
INSKEEP: According to the Washington Post, the paper confirms what people in Baghdad have been saying for years. It finds an increasingly dangerous situation where the U.S. has little control. Sectarian violence is outstripping al-Qaida as a threat.
MONTAGNE: The president has seen this document. But when the president's nominee to lead intelligence agencies appeared before a Senate committee, he said - perhaps wisely - that he had not. Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Even before Mike McConnell could take his seat to testify, he was being upstaged. Word was spreading through the cavernous Senate hearing room that the long-awaited National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was finally ready. Reporters and Senate aides who'd gathered for a predictable ritual - McConnell's confirmation is not in doubt - were suddenly whipping out Blackberries and cell phones. McConnell stuck to the script - a bland, six-page statement promising to work closely with Congress. But about halfway through questions, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein pounced. She asked McConnell to weigh in on the classified and declassified versions of the NIE, out later today.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): Have you reviewed those documents?
Admiral MIKE MCCONNELL (Navy, Retired; Nominee, Director of Senate Intelligence Committee): No, ma'am. I have not.
Sen. FEINSTEIN: You haven't?
Adm. MCCONNELL: No ma'am.
Sen. FEINSTEIN: Well that - I must say, I'm rather surprised by that.
KELLY: NIE's are crucial documents, because they represent the work of all 16 U.S. spy agencies. It's been more than two years since the last one on Iraq, and members of Congress have been complaining bitterly about the delay in getting a new one. Feinstein recalled the notoriously flawed 2002 NIE on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, and she told McConnell to make sure this new one benefited from competitive analysis.
Sen. FEINSTEIN: I'd like to ask that you take a look at that NIE and be able to provide some assurance that the judgments have been red teamed and are sound judgments. Will you try and do that, please?
KELLY: McConnell promised to do so. Other senators also dwelled on past intelligence mistakes and how to avoid repeating them. Democrat Barbara Mikulsky wanted to know could Admiral McConnell - a career military officer - avoid being a yes man to his commander in chief? She described the prewar intelligence on Iraq as dangerously incompetent.
Senator BARBARA MIKULSKY (Democrat, Maryland): My question to you is that as you do the work of the DNI, how can we count on you to speak truth to power so these terrible and reckless mistakes won't happen again?
Adm. MCCONNELL: Senator, I believe that the first calling of an intelligence officer is to do just that: speak truth to power. In my career, I hope I have a reputation for having done just that.
KELLY: Kit Bond, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, wanted to probe other character issues. McConnell has a reputation among former colleagues at the Pentagon as being fiercely intelligent, also rather soft spoken and courteous. Senator Bond asked whether McConnell would also be tough.
Senator CHRISTOPHER "KIT" BOND (Republican, Missouri): Just for the record, are you willing to shake up the community, break some rice bowls, make unpopular decisions erring on the side of decisive leadership in the community when consensus cannot be achieved and sharing is not occurring?
Adm. MCCONNELL: The short answer, senator, is yes. I am prepared to do that. I am a consensus builder. I do listen. But at some time, you have someone in charge for a reason, and that means if you have to make a decision to break through an impasse, you have to decide and move on. And I'm prepared to do that.
KELLY: McConnell also declared his determination to improve human intelligence by hiring more first generation Americans who can speak languages like Arabic and Urdu. And he promised to keep the committee fully briefed on intelligence operations. Several senators - including the chairman, Democrat Jay Rockefeller - complained that in past, key documents have been less than forthcoming.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, Wyoming): I want a commitment from you that you'll provide these documents to us expeditiously if confirmed.
Adm. MCCONNELL: Yes, sir. As you and I discussed privately and as I testified earlier, that my philosophy is to provide you with what you need to do your oversight responsibilities.
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Thank you, sir.
KELLY: Rockefeller brought the proceedings to a close after just over two hours. Not a single senator indicated they're likely to vote no on Admiral McConnell's nomination. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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