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How intelligent is the Director of National Intelligence?

Over the weekend, when many of you were out doing errands instead of postponing work at your office desk by visiting The Ticket and learning lots of things, we published an item about a speech last week by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.

It was an interesting speech for several reasons. Spooks don't talk in public all that often. He discussed the importance of intelligence for national security and the historical cycle of Americans' distaste for spies. So it tolerates them at times of obvious threat, but then typically cuts back on that dirty business when the threats appear to fade, and ultimately gets sadly surprised by cataclysmic events such as Pearl Harbor and the Korean War and 9/11.

McConnell also shared some code-breaking stories including one immortalized by Hal Holbrook in the movie "Midway," about how the U.S. Navy figured out the Japanese fleet was headed for an attack on Midway Island and set up its own historic naval ambush. Good weekend reading and background since the Iraq war began and how its conclusion is handled are certain to be major topics in the unfolding presidential election.

But, it turns out, there's a serious problem with part of....

McConnell's speech. He opened it, as many speech-givers do, with a funny story. It was about a historical radio conversation at sea that begins with one voice advising a ship to change course 15 degrees to avoid a collision. The ship replies that the initial radio voice should be the one to change course.

And it escalates from there, each suggesting the other change course until the ship captain announces that he's navigating a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier accompanied by numerous other ships and orders the first voice to change course immediately.

To which the first voice replies, "Dear Captain. The next move is your call. This is a Canadian lighthouse."

Hilarious, especially to Canadians accustomed to Americans throwing their weight around the way Americans do without thinking. "The point of my story," McConnell told his attentive audience at Johns Hopkins University, "is always know who you're talking to."

And maybe also know what you're talking about. McConnell opened that sea story by saying, "Now this is... true. I was in the signals intelligence business where you listen to the people talk and so on. This is true. It’s an actual recording." 

It turns out our audience of loyal Ticket readers includes Brooks Jackson, whom many will remember from his long career at AP and CNN, where he made a well-earned national reputation verifying the claims and ads of politicians.

He's since retired and operates a priceless online resource known as that still monitors the facts thrown around in our nation's political dialogue. (i.e. Is Barack Obama's statement true that CEOs earn more in 10 minutes than average workers in a year? No.) We recommend the site.

Jackson was struck by McConnell's radio exchange story. He started mining his vast resources. And you'll never guess what he found and e-mailed to us. The radio exchange story that the Director of National Intelligence, a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy and former director of the National Security Agency, said was "true" and "an actual recording" is, in fact, a phony. Untrue. False. Urban naval legend. Never happened.

Nearly 11 years ago the United States Navy posted an item on its website debunking the story.

Now, if the Director of National Intelligence (or his intelligent speech writer) doesn't know what's on a government website belonging to the director's own former branch of the military, what else do you suppose they don't know?

--Andrew Malcolm

Comments () | Archives (6)

The comments to this entry are closed.

while it is not necessary to suspect that the intelligence of people working in the same name business is less than par, when the recurring pattern and unfailing result of their no doubt hard work is obvious disinformation and propaganda, it might be reasonable to ask different questions. why don't they ever seem to be telling the truth about anything, who are they really working for, and what are the interests of whoever they are really working for?
is their agenda really in your best interest?
so to rephrase the question, 'what is it they don't want you to know, and why?'
maybe some answers are no farer away than a click on factcheck. and many are right in your face, you know...

I know Mike Mconnell well. He is exceptionally bright, his work ethc is inbeatable, he's got a great personality-- and he likes to tell a joke.

The joke cited in the media is well-known as just that: a made-up tale. A "sea story," if you will. The variant I once heard had the lighthouse as ownerless -- just a piloting device for mariners.

To set the fact-pluckers into a frenzied search for clay feet is a bit of overkill, is it not? Have we gotten THAT tighly-wrapped as a society?? Listen to the joke as it plays out: if you know anything at all about lighthouses and Navy navigation devices the humor begins to show after the initial exchange between ship and other correspondent.

Give ita rest. Give Mike a rest. Afterall, he resignedfrom a Fortune500 senior leadership position to return to serving his country at probably a tenth the pay.

It MUST have been a slow news day.... Next time, people, square breathe for a while and then count to ten.

Yes, Virginia, the world IS a saferplace because of men like Mike McConnell -- a genuinely Good Guy who's the perfect choice to lead a (figurative) herd of wild horses known as the Intelligence Community.

Steve Myers, Captain, USN, Retired, in PA

PS: Chill out, will you?

thanks for highlighting this. i wrote recently about the damage false email forwards can have on our political landscape. this example isn't necessarily partisan in nature, but does go to show how easily seemingly smart people can be fooled when an urban legend is repeated enough.

my piece on this is here:

Like most questionable information spread via the Internet, this item can easily be debunked through the Urban Legends resource

If he knew the story wasn't true, why did he have to claim it WAS true? Habit? Symptom of having been in close proximity of the Bush administration too long? Or was he chosen by Bush for his proclivity to lie when the truth would do just as well?

"Needless to say, the President is correct. Whatever it was he said."

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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