MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now on to President Bush's choice for intelligence chief, Mike McConnell is a retired vice admiral and former head of the National Security Agency.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has his profile.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Mike McConnell was once a regular on the nation's TV screens. Back in 1991 as a top intelligence officer for Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs. McConnell brief developments in the Gulf War to millions of watching Americans. But he's spent the years since then, at the super secretive National Security Agency, and in the private sector - at the consulting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton.

Today, as McConnell face the TV cameras at the White House, he looked a little nervous.

Mr. MIKE MCCONNELL (Newly Appointed Director of National Intelligence): Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Secretary Rice, ambassador…

KELLY: McConnell said he is excited about his new assignment, and he acknowledged a lot has changed since he left the government service in 1996.

Mr. MCCONNELL: Unlike, just a decade ago, the treats of today and the future are moving at an increasing speeds and across organizational and geographic boundaries.

KELLY: Mike McConnell is 63, a South Carolina native, and a career military intelligence officer. Former colleagues describe him as intensely smart, also quiet and soft-spoken. Ron Lee, who served as McConnell's top lawyer at the NSA, back in the '90s, says that sometimes causes people to underestimate him.

Mr. RON LEE (Lawyer, National Security Agency): He's personal, he's engaging, he's certainly not going to try to bludgeon anybody. But, I think that should not be mistaken, he is tough and he knows how to deal with big bureaucracies.

KELLY: Until now, the biggest bureaucracy McConnell has tackled is the National Security Agency. McConnell ran it from '92 to '96 as the Cold War was winding down and some were questioning whether the U.S. still needed a huge eavesdropping agency.

Intelligence experts give mixed reviews of McConnell's tenure. Some say he didn't do enough to fight budget cuts or to adapt to new technologies. But Ron Lee argues McConnell was grappling with a set of unprecedented challenges.

Mr. LEE: The change in mission, the change in technology, the decline in the budgetary environment, and then a series of very difficult policy issues that had to do with how the nation was going to approach and encryption and export controls. You know, he led the agency's efforts to deal with all of those, and I think, he did it extremely well.

KELLY: McConnell is now walking into a new job at the helm of another bureaucracy n the middle of a major reorganization. The position of National Intelligence Director is just two years old. It's the centerpiece of the 2004 overhaul of U.S. Intelligence efforts.

The current director, John Negroponte, has been in the post 20 months and some question whether reassigning him so quickly suggests the Bush administration is less than serious about intelligence reform, but not everyone agrees.

Mr. MARK LOWENTHAL (Former CIA Official): I have to tell you, I think the appointment of Mike McConnell has actually - bucks up the position of DNI.

KELLY: That's Mark Lowenthal, a former top CIA official.

Mr. LOWENTHAL: I think that the changed consolation of Mike McConnell, Secretary of Defense Gates, Jim Klapper is going in through the new undersecretary of defense for Intelligence. I think you actually have a better opportunity now, in some respects, to get some interesting changes done in the intelligence community better than we had before.

KELLY: Lowenthal adds McConnell is inheriting a still nascent organization. I think he'll have free reign to shape it pretty much as he sees fit.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.