Officials believe White House chose new Intelligence chief in effort to darken Iran Intelligence Estimate, broaden domestic surveillance
Nominee's company audited
SWIFT banking spy program
The nomination of retired Vice Admiral John Michael "Mike" McConnell to be Director of National Intelligence is part of an effort by the Vice President to tighten the Administration's grip on domestic intelligence and grease the wheels for a more aggressive stance towards Iran, current and former intelligence officials believe.
If confirmed, McConnell will replace current National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, who was tapped Friday to become Deputy Secretary of State under Secretary Condoleezza Rice. According to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, Negroponte's exit followed a lengthy internal administration battle between the Office of the Vice President and the two-year-old Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
According to officials close to both men, two issues surround Negroponte's departure and McConnell's nomination: a forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate on Iran -- which the White House could use to buttress a case for military force -- and pressure from the Vice President to augment domestic surveillance.
Negroponte had resisted both efforts. Tensions soared after Negroponte made a public statement last year that countered the administration position that Iran was an immediate threat and that its alleged nuclear weapons program was in an advanced stage.
"The NIE on Iran is at issue," said one former senior intelligence officer close to Negroponte.
The National Intelligence Estimate is an interagency report that synthesizes information across all intelligence agencies on a particular topic, providing an overall assessment and analysis. In private conversations with RAW STORY, current and former US intelligence officials from various agencies raised concerns with McConnell's appointment and its effect on the Iran NIE.
"McConnell will go along with whatever [Cheney tells him to do] and make sure that no objective NIE comes out," one former senior intelligence officer said.
A spokesman for the National Intelligence Director's Office, however, denied the Estimate would be affected.
"I don't have any reason to believe that the change with Mr. Negroponte and Admiral McConnell will delay the NIEs on Iran or Iraq at this point," spokesman Chad Colton said Sunday. The Iran Estimate is scheduled to be released some time this month.
All of the officials RAW STORY spoke with had reservations about Vice Admiral McConnell.
In a call Friday, President Reagan's Director of Intelligence Programs for the National Security Council from 1984-1987 and Chief of Operations and Analysis at the Central CIA's Counterterrorism Center under President Bush Sr. Vincent Cannistraro called the nomination "a disaster."
Others said McConnell would follow the White House's direction.
"McConnell's not an effective manager" said former CIA officer Larry Johnson. "He will be likely to acquiesce to White House pressure on issues."
"McConnell was not Rummeyesque," Johnson added. "He doesn't have a clear vision. He's not a strong manager."
The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran
Parts of an earlier Iran Intelligence Estimate were leaked to the Washington Post in 2005. These excerpts asserted that Iran was at least ten years away from possessing any significant nuclear enrichment capability and contrasted sharply with White House estimates, which had warned Iran could mount a full-scale attack in 3-5 years.
"The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House," the Post's Dafna Linzer reported. "Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal."
Negroponte defended the published findings, attempting to push back against pressure from the Vice President's office, and maintained his opposition to military action against Iran.
By March 2006, however, the Department of Defense -- on orders from the Vice President's Office -- had created the Iranian Directorate, which was largely a recreation of the notorious Office of Special Plans. The Office of Special Plans operated in the build-up to the Iraq war and is believed by most experts to have been the conduit through which pre-Iraq war intelligence was allegedly manipulated, if not cooked outright.
In a previous RAW STORY article on the Iranian Directorate, John Pike of Global Security -- a Washington-based intelligence clearinghouse -- said, "It was created to, as Dean Acheson urged Harry Truman, to scare hell out of the American people by making things a little bit clearer than the truth."
The creation of the Iran Directorate sharply undercut the Director of National Intelligence and what sources say were Negroponte's efforts to collect the most comprehensive and accurate intelligence on Iran and provide it directly to the President. The Office was created in 2005 by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act to centralize information coming out of all 16 US intelligence agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
According to officials, Negroponte, while trying to work around interagency tensions, was not given the requisite authority to override pressure from Cheney's office.
In October, Negroponte publicly cautioned against the use of force with regard to Iran, telling President Bush that because of "technical errors" in Iran's nuclear program, the situation was not an emergency.
The other key area of concern for the intelligence community in McConnell's nomination is the Executive Branch's attempt to expand domestic surveillance programs, especially those conducted by the National Security Agency.
Current and former intelligence officials say that Negroponte and his staff were not comfortable with the level of domestic surveillance or the use of NSA wiretaps that were being pushed by the White House.
"[The office of the Vice President] could not get Negroponte to do anything with NSA and domestic surveillance," said one former senior intelligence official. "McConnell worked with Cheney during the Gulf War."
"He is not competent, but he is someone they can control," the official added.
None of the intelligence sources would describe what types of programs were at issue or confirm if these programs were those already known to the public. But they emphasized that compared to Negroponte, McConnell would be much more willing to accommodate the White House position on domestic surveillance.
McConnell's background is in surveillance programs, dating to when he served during the Gulf War as Director of the National Military Joint Intelligence Center, followed by a term as Director of the National Security Agency. After leaving government service in 1996, McConnell became a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, a major defense contractor.
According to his online Booz Allen biography, McConnell led the "firm's support to the Presidential Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, focusing on the vulnerabilities of the banking and financial sector."
McConnell's unique banking intelligence experience aligns with a major facet of President Bush's international banking surveillance efforts.
In June 2006, The New York Times revealed that the CIA had been given authority by the Bush administration to mine the banking records of suspected "Al Qaeda" members using the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT).
"The program is limited, government officials say, to tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry, a Belgian cooperative that routes about $6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions," Eric Licthblau and James Risen reported for The Times. "The records mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas and into and out of the United States."
The CIA and Treasury Departments both said they had instituted safeguards for protecting privacy by hiring an "outside auditor" to provide a check against civil rights violations. The company auditing the SWIFT program is Booz Allen Hamilton.
In September 2006, Privacy International and the American Civil Liberties Union issued a joint statement describing why Booz Allen Hamilton was not a genuine "check" on the SWIFT program.
"Booz Allen is one of the largest US Government contractors, with hundreds of millions of dollars in US Government contracts awarded each year," the groups wrote in a statement. "Booz Allen has a history of working closely with US Government agencies on electronic surveillance, including the Total Information Awareness program. Among Booz Allen's senior consulting staff are several former members of the intelligence community, including a former Director of the CIA and a former director of the NSA. In its private consulting practice, Booz Allen has been at the forefront of the push to increased information sharing, calling for private businesses to provide more information to the US Government."
In addition to his work for Booz Allen, in 2004 McConnell also joined the board of directors of security firm CompuDyne, which hopes to obtain more federal contracts in the area of "signals intelligence" -- interception and surveillance, in common parlance -- an area which is well known as being McConnell's specialty.
Muriel Kane contributed to the research for this article.
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Larisa Alexandrovna, Raw Story's Managing Investigative News Editor, regularly covers national security and intelligence stories. She can be reached at [email protected]