Spy Master Admits Error

In a new embarrassment for the Bush administration's top spymaster, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell is withdrawing an assertion he made to Congress this week that a recently passed electronic-surveillance law helped U.S. authorities foil a major terror plot in Germany.

The temporary measure, signed into law by President Bush on Aug. 5, gave the U.S. intelligence community broad new powers to eavesdrop on telephone and e-mail communications overseas without seeking warrants from the surveillance court. The law expires in six months and is expected to be the subject of intense debate in the months ahead. On Monday, McConnell—questioned by Sen. Joe Lieberman—claimed the law, intended to remedy what the White House said was an intelligence gap, had helped to "facilitate" the arrest of three suspects believed to be planning massive car bombings against American targets in Germany. Other U.S. intelligence-community officials questioned the accuracy of McConnell's testimony and urged his office to correct it. Four intelligence-community officials, who asked for anonymity discussing sensitive material, said the new law, dubbed the "Protect America Act," played little if any role in the unraveling of the German plot. The U.S. military initially provided information that helped the Germans uncover the plot. But that exchange of information took place months before the new "Protect America" law was passed.

After questions about his testimony were raised, McConnell called Lieberman to clarify his statements to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, an official said. (A spokeswoman for Lieberman confirmed that McConnell called the senator Tuesday but could not immediately confirm what they spoke about.) Late Wednesday afternoon, McConnell issued a statement acknowledging that "information contributing to the recent arrests [in Germany] was not collected under authorities provided by the 'Protect America Act'."

The developments were cited by Democratic critics on Capitol Hill as the latest example of the Bush administration's exaggerated claims—and contradictory statements—about ultrasecret surveillance activities. In the face of such complaints, the administration has consistently resisted any public disclosure about the details of the surveillance activities—even though McConnell himself has openly talked about some aspects of them.

The Justice Department, for example, just two weeks ago filed a brief opposing the public release of secret legal opinions about the program—even in redacted form—on the grounds that any disclosure beyond a one-sentence comment earlier this year by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would "cause serious damage to the national security of the United States." (The existence of one of those rulings was first disclosed by NEWSWEEK this summer and publicly confirmed by McConnell in an interview with the El Paso Times in August. The ACLU last month filed an unprecedented motion with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking public release of its rulings about the surveillance program.)

The flap over McConnell's latest statements is especially sensitive because many Democrats have said they felt the White House and the director of national intelligence stampeded them into passing the new surveillance law—claiming it was needed on an "emergency" basis to protect the country against a future terror attack. Speaking Wednesday at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Rep. Jane Harman, who was ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee until she was bumped from the committee earlier this year, charged that McConnell had politicized negotiations over the bill. He "appeared to be taking orders from the White House, negotiating for the White House," said Harman. The role he played, "whether he intended it or not, appeared to be political," she said. "Hey—Jane to Mike," she said, "don't become a political actor."

McConnell's testimony that the new law helped in the German case was especially striking—since it seemed to contradict public statements by American and German officials about how the plot was exposed. About 10 months ago—long before the new law was put into effect—guards at a U.S. military base near Frankfurt noted a suspicious individual conducting surveillance outside the facility. U.S. military officials tipped off German authorities, who quickly identified the individual and several accomplices as militants affiliated with the Islamic Jihad Union, a violent Al Qaeda-linked group. The Germans kept the group under surveillance for months and discovered evidence that the militants—some of whom had been to an Islamic Jihad Union training camp in Pakistan—were assembling chemicals for bombing attacks on American military installations in Germany. (The U.S. Embassy in Berlin issued a public warning last April that it had received intelligence reporting about threats against U.S. personnel in that country.) One U.S. intelligence official described the law-enforcement operation as a case of "good old-fashioned police work."

Yet when McConnell testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, he cited the German case as an example of how the new Protect America Act was working. The law, he started to say, "allowed us to see and understand all the connections with ..." At that point, Lieberman, the committee chair, interrupted McConnell. Lieberman expressed surprise that the law might have contributed to the German counterterror operation. "The newly adopted law facilitated that during August?" he asked.

"Yes, sir, it did," McConnell responded. "The connections to Al Qaeda, the connections specifically to what's referred to as IJU, the Islamic Jihad Union, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. Because we could understand it, we could help our partners through a long process of monitoring and observation. And so at the right time, when Americans and German facilities were being targeted, the German authorities decided to move."

Counterterrorism officials familiar with the background of McConnell's testimony said they did not believe the intel czar made inaccurate statements intentionally as part of any strategy by the administration to goad Congress into making the new eavesdropping law permanent. Officials said they believed McConnell gave the wrong answer because he was overwhelmed with information and merely mixed up his facts. Nonetheless, some officials said, as news of McConnell's misstatements spread, it would be in the intelligence director's best interests to correct his testimony—advice he is now heeding.