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The Director of National Intelligence opens up to students

March 15, 2008 |  7:42 pm

Mike McConnell is the director of national intelligence and a veteran of the eavesdropping business. So he's usually much more into listening than talking.

So when he made one of his infrequent public speeches this week, The Ticket decided to take note. National security, the Patriot Act and the current ongoing struggle over renewing eavesdropping amnesty for cooperative private companies are going to be major issues in the developing presidential campaign this year.

McConnell spoke at a foreign affairs symposium at Johns Hopkins University and, though he's rarely pictured smiling, opened with a joke from behind the cloak:

"Now this is... true,'' the director says. "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.

"There’s a party talking to a ship at sea that says, 'Ship at sea, please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.'

"Now the response was, 'Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.'

"The first party says, 'Sorry, sir, but you will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.'

"The answering party says, 'This is the captain of a United States naval ship. I say again, divert your course.'

"The first party says, 'Pardon me sir, you must divert your course.'

"Now the American ship says, 'This is an American aircraft carrier, the second largest ship in the United States fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers, numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north. I say again, that is 1-5 degrees north or counter-measures will be taken. Do you understand?'

"The response was, 'Dear Captain, the next move is your call. This is a Canadian lighthouse.'

"All of this is prologue to a history of American surveillance and the current debate over eavesdropping on domestic calls and e-mail traffic with suspected terrorists abroad.

"The point of my story is, always know who you’re talking to,'' McConnell said.

(UPDATE: An alert Ticket reader detected something too familiar about this story. And, sure enough, it's not only old, it's apocryphal. A corrective item was published the next day here.)

For those interested in reading much more of McConnell's revealing remarks, including some unclassified true stories from the annals of intelligence, click on the Read More line below here.

--Mark Silva

Mark Silva writes for the Swamp from the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau.

"I understand this is on the record and there is a recording being made, and I suspect that if he has his way I’ll be on the nightly news, and if I have my way, they’ll never know this happened,'' McConnell told his audience. "This will be, I had 20 minutes, we’re now 10 minutes into it, so this will be a little bit like the motorcycle ride through the art gallery.

"How many of you have ever read a book about spies or seen a movie about spies? Here’s an interesting phenomena. America loves spy books and spy novels, but Americans hate spies.

"Think about it. Think about when our government was created. The Founding Fathers. Remember the separation of powers. A big concern was war in Europe, someone riding in on the white horse and all of a sudden becoming the only member that could lead and before long you’d have a tyrannical government. The first leader to ever step down in history, voluntarily, while in good health, was George Washington.

"So as you think about our nation and our culture and how we behave in our day to day activities, we don’t like spies because spies in most countries spy on their own citizens. That is not true in this country, but we’re often accused of that. So I thought I’d open this venue up just a little bit so I can talk about that.

"Our history has been we’re never ready with the right intelligence resources when it’s time that we need them in an emergency. Going into World War II -- now I was actually not old enough to remember, but I was born in that timeframe. I know you've read about it in your history books. But in World War II we had a few paramilitary members who were enthusiastic about behind the lines operations, parachuting in, running resistance and so on, and we had a few code breakers. As it turned out, starting from that base, and we were not ready, by the time we got into World War II the major contribution of my community were human agents operating behind the lines -- sabotage, resistance operations; and the second part was pure math.

"It was code breaking. We were reading the orders of the German commanders, that were sent from Berlin to the German commanders, before the commanders read their orders.

"A quick story about the Pacific. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Subsequent to that the Japanese fleet’s underway. All we know is underway. We don’t know where they are. The beach, Tokyo, talks to the fleet; the fleet does not answer. They get a message but they don’t acknowledge. If they acknowledge, they’re vulnerable. We could listen, we could target them with direction finding. So the method is, get underway and we’ll tell you where to go and what to do.

"So the Japanese fleet’s underway. The target could have been Singapore, Manila, San Francisco, Hawaii. So Admiral Nimitz, after suffering from the Pearl Harbor losses, had a reduced fleet and didn’t know where to go.

"The Pacific Ocean/Indian Ocean covers half the globe. A very large expanse to cover. So the question was, how do you pin down where the Japanese fleet is going? What is their intended target?

"So a young cryptologist came up with an idea. We were breaking a lane of traffic, meaning they would talk, we could listen, and they encrypted, they scrambled the text, but then we’d be able to break out the text into plain text. We caused all the potential targets to talk about themselves in the clear, meaning we knew that the Japanese were listening.

"One of the suspected targets was Midway. Midway has no fresh water. So we told Midway on an undersea cable so nobody could hear it. Tell us that you have a water shortage. Send a water tanker immediately. So in the clear, Midway said, “Water shortage, must have a water tanker.” Within 12 hours the Japanese sent a message to the ships at sea, 'Target X suffering water shortage.' We had the answer.

"Admiral Nimitz put the entire remaining U.S. Pacific fleet at Midway and was successful in defeating the Japanese Navy, and the battle in the Pacific was downhill for the Japanese ever since.

"So think about breaking German codes in World War II, breaking Japanese codes in World War II in the Pacific, and the result, the historians are arguing a bit now. Now this is all unclassified and people are talking about it. Did it shorten the war 18 months or two years? But think about global conflict. Thousands of people dying. Huge investments. So you start to understand, what does it mean to invest in intelligence capability early in the process?

"Let me jump to the Cold War. What did this community do for the Cold War? Remember I said we build it up when we need it; we take it down when we don’t need it.

"Winston Churchill did us a favor. He invented the term Cold War. Caused us to think about it a little bit differently. We had a big debate that resulted in two basic foreign policy objectives -- containment of communism and nuclear deterrence. So when those two things evolved out of the policy debate, the agreement was we must maintain a strong robust capability in intelligence.

"We did basically two things. We captured the high ground -- space, outer space where we could look down. We had denied territory that ran 13 time zones where the old Soviet Union wanted to keep us out so we would not know what was going on. We captured the high ground.

"We could look and listen from space so we had a capability to advise and warn and provide intelligence information that allowed the policymakers to make the right decisions to allow us to navigate that space to prevent a hot war and to win the Cold War.

"Guess what the watch word in Washington, D.C. was in 1991? Remember the Soviet Union collapsed in August of ’91. There were two words in the Congress -- peace dividend. Let me translate. We’ve got this huge intelligence apparatus, it cost us billions of dollars, we don’t need it any more. So we started to take it apart. And over the course of the next number of years we did take it apart. We reduced it somewhere between 35-45 percent.

"We have another phenomena. This community has the nation as a community of laws. We’re a nation of laws. We’re a community that observes the law. There were some abuses with regard to spying on Americans that go back to World War II. Remember the Japanese internment camps, the opening of mail and so on.

"If you track through that history, there's literally a period of time where the executive authority used the Intelligence Community to spy on Americans for some purpose. That happened in World War II, it happened in the ‘50s, it happened in the ‘60s, and it really blew up in the ‘70s at something called Watergate.

"In that situation the Vietnam War was on, there was some spying on Americans, and so the result of that was a tremendous reaction on the part of the American people, this is not acceptable. There were hearings on the Hill, Church and Pike, those are the two chairs -- one in the House, one in the Senate. What it resulted in were new rules.

"One of the things that came out of that period is something called FISA -- Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. What does that mean?

"What the Congress wrestled with was the nation must do foreign intelligence. Remember, Cold War, we have a Soviet Union that was nearing its height, we had premiers that had beat on the podium at the United Nations saying ‘We will bury you.’ It was domination. It was domination of the world.

"So the dilemma was, how do we have a community that’s regulated in a way that it can conduct foreign intelligence but be restricted in what it can do in the domestic context. So it was a very simple construct.

"If it’s foreign, go for it and do your mission. There’s no involvement of oversight from the courts, although there would be oversight from the Congress. If it’s domestic, meaning a U.S. person, you must go to a court and get a warrant for surveillance. In this case the only purpose could be foreign intelligence, foreign intelligence purpose.

"But why would you conduct surveillance against a U.S. person for foreign intelligence reasons? A U.S. person, you’d think that’s a citizen. A citizen can be a spy working for the Soviets, the old Soviet Union; it could be a foreign official. So there are a number of cases, a limited number, where you would do electronic surveillance with a warrant against a U.S. person.

"Let me fast forward to today. For those of you that are in the curriculum for computer science or EE or telecommunications, you know what I’m about to say. In what I describe as the dot-boom, in that period when the internet really caught on and we had global communications that literally made us one global net around the world. International communications changed very very dramatically.

"When I was your age, international communications were mostly wireless. There are only two kinds of communications -- wireless and wire. Most of you probably have a cell phone. Most, if I ask where’s the dominance of communications today, most of you would probably say wireless because that’s what you’ve experienced. Think of wireless as the on and off ramp for a 6,000 lane highway. That’s the way to think about it.

"Wire today is fiber. Ninety percent of the world’s communications are in a glass pipe. Guess what that means for us in the intelligence business? It’s not uncommon for a foreigner, someone in Pakistan, communicating with another foreigner, someone in Iraq, both terrorists, both planning to do something, to come to the United States to attack this school or attack an office building or do something in the context of weapons of mass destruction. Their communications from Pakistan to Iraq likely could pass through the United States. A problem for my community.

"The old law said if I intercept something on a wire in the United States I have to have a warrant. Now the law was written in 1978. It said you have to have a warrant because the expectation of privacy -- think back in those periods of time, you had a telephone with a wire on it. So the differentiation in that period of time was that if you have a wire you expect privacy; if you broadcast, you wouldn’t expect privacy. So the wording in 1978 said one thing, the intent was very different.

"The intent said if it’s foreign it’s okay, if it’s domestic you have to have a warrant. All of a sudden, to do foreign intelligence I had to get a warrant because it was on a wire, glass pipe, inside the United States.

"So we started this journey to try to get this corrected and we are having an interesting journey to try to do this.

"A law was passed last summer, it has now expired. We’re in a situation where we’re negotiating day to day to do permission, and there’s debate between the Senate and the House over how to go forward. I’m sure there may be a question or two about that a little bit later on. That’s where we are.

"Let me just finish up because I’ve taken up my 20 minutes. This is a wonderful community. It is an opportunity to serve the nation in incredible ways from science and technology to political science to history to in-depth analysis of human beings or technical subjects or whatever. It’s large.

"We spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $44 billion a year to maintain this enterprise. Our employees serve all over the globe, oftentimes in harm’s way. But we are working as a community of professionals guided by the culture and the laws of the nation to respect not only the nation but the citizens of the nation and their rights to privacy and civil liberties, in the context of trying to find foreigners who wish us ill will.

"When I look at Al Qaeda today, they’ve established de facto sanctuary in Pakistan, the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s a relatively small number, but using modern communications they can reach literally around the globe.

"They are recruiting operatives in Europe, Northern Africa, other parts of the world, bringing them to Pakistan to train, training in weapons of mass destruction and their intent is to send those operatives forward to Europe, to Africa, or specifically the United States with the attempt to achieve mass casualties greater than 9/11.

"They’re determined, they have senior leadership, they have middle level operators, they have sanctuary, and the thing that they are missing are operatives that can actually penetrate our borders. So that’s where we are in the day-to-day struggle to do our mission, protect the nation, protect it physically, protect your privacy and your rights to civil liberties and still maintain a professional community that has high standards of professionalism and integrity to do the right thing.

"So when I got that call back in December ’06 from the White House, that it’s time to come back, or do you think you can help us, I had to go through a confirmation period and so on, but I was sworn in in February of 2007, and it’s been a great pleasure to lead this community as we try to now build the structure for this next generation.

"We did well in World War II, we did very well in the Cold War. We lagged in the ‘90s because our typical mode is to take it down. We had the horrendous consequences of 9/11 when our old mode was, anything in my business looked foreign, so the al-Qaida terrorists did exactly what they needed to do to penetrate our defenses.

"Since they knew my community looked out only, and they knew that domestic law enforcement had much higher standards for what they had to do, they put the terrorists inside the country, now they’re invisible to the foreign Intelligence Community. They had not violated a law, and therefore they were invisible to the law enforcement community, until they carried out the terrible act of 9/11.

"So we’ve had to adjust that. We created the Department of Homeland Security, we created my position, passed a series of laws that allow us to try to track a foreign threat that actually penetrates our borders and operates inside the country.

"That’s the first time literally since the British were here in 1812 that we had to worry about that kind of a problem other than a little thing called the Civil War.''

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