The Spymaster

Can Mike McConnell fix America’s intelligence community?

  1. Last May, the director of National Intelligence, a soft-spoken South Carolinian named Mike McConnell, learned that three U.S. soldiers had been captured by Sunni insurgents in central Iraq. As a search team of six thousand American and Iraqi forces combed through Babil Province, analysts at the National Security Agency, in Fort Meade, Maryland, began examining communications traffic in Iraq, hoping to pick up conversations among the soldiers’ captors. To McConnell’s consternation, such surveillance required a warrant—not because the kidnappers were entitled to constitutional protections but because their communications might pass electronically through U.S. circuits.

    The kidnappings could have been just another barely noticed tragedy in a long, bloody war, but at that moment an important political debate was taking place in Washington. Lawmakers were trying to strike a balance between respecting citizens’ privacy and helping lawenforcement and intelligence officials protect the country against crime, terror, espionage, and treason. McConnell, who had been in office for less than three months when the soldiers were captured, was urging Congress to make a change in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which governs the process of eavesdropping on citizens and foreigners inside the U.S. and requires agencies to obtain a warrant within seventy-two hours after monitoring begins. The act was a response to abuses of the Nixon era, when the U.S. government turned...