Bush's choice of McConnell said to revive `career' model

Last professional spy to be chief was Gates

January 06, 2007|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- In selecting retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell as the next director of national intelligence, President Bush is reviving a model for the nation's spy chief: the intelligence professional.

McConnell, a former National Security Agency director who spent a quarter-century in the military, primarily in intelligence, would be the first career intelligence officer in 14 years to lead the nation's intelligence agencies. Bush announced yesterday that he intends to nominate McConnell, who must be confirmed by the Senate.

The last career intelligence professional to head up the intelligence agencies was Robert M. Gates, who served as director of central intelligence from 1991 to 1993 and who recently became defense secretary. McConnell's selection caps a series of recent appointments of career intelligence officers to major U.S. spy and defense posts, in what one former intelligence official called "an intelligence professional coup d'etat."

That could mean a truce in the power struggle between the Pentagon and the national intelligence director's office under departed Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and outgoing spy chief John D. Negroponte, said a former colleague who requested anonymity because he does business with intelligence agencies.

McConnell and Gates want to end the infighting, the former colleague said, adding, "Gates believes that the intelligence guys ought to run intelligence."

McConnell said yesterday that he would focus on integrating the work of all 16 intelligence agencies because "the threats of today and the future are moving at increasing speeds and across organizational lines and geographic boundaries."

In announcing his choice for spy chief, with both McConnell and outgoing intelligence director John D. Negroponte by his side at a brief White House ceremony, Bush emphasized McConnell's intelligence background, noting that he has "decades of experience ensuring that our military forces had the intelligence they need to fight and win wars" and has won the highest award a U.S. intelligence officer can receive.

John Michael McConnell, 63, was "the product of humble roots," in the words of Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. His father worked in the trucking industry, and his mother was employed in the textile industry. He grew up in Greenville, S.C., earned an economics degree at Furman University in 1966 and a master's degree in public administration at George Washington University in 1986.

He rose rapidly though the military ranks. During the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s, he impressed then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell as the officer in charge of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs. He often briefed the press because he distilled complex ideas into easily understood terms.

Powell lobbied for him to get the national intelligence director job, according to the former McConnell colleague.

McConnell took over as head of the NSA in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Former colleagues say he managed effectively and sought innovative solutions as Congress demanded fresh budget cuts every year.

Ultimately, McConnell was unable to stave off deep spending cuts, recalled Michael Jacobs, a former senior NSA official. He made "difficult decisions" about which targets to no longer cover, Jacobs said. "It was a brutal time."

McConnell has described his leadership style as quick and direct.

"I chose to go fairly fast," he said of his NSA years in a Sun interview in 2005. He streamlined the NSA's top staff and delegated responsibility "so we could manage in a more effective way, with oversight and accountability."

One of his top priorities at the NSA, as the Internet expanded, was stronger information security. John Gannon, a former senior CIA official who worked with McConnell, said he understood the impact the Internet would have on intelligence long before others in government.

Because of budget cuts, however, he was not able to invest in the kinds of collection technology needed to adapt to the Internet age, he said.

Critics paint a mixed picture.

Intelligence historian Matthew Aid said McConnell did not manage the budget cuts well and, as a result, many of the NSA's best managers were eliminated as the work force shrank. He also allowed research and development efforts to stall, said Aid, who did give McConnell credit for a strong performance in the Bosnian conflict.

McConnell has spent the last 10 years at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, where he is credited with expanding the intelligence practice. "They probably have the biggest chunk of recent former CIA people of any of the corporations," said Gannon.

As a participant on several intelligence advisory panels, McConnell has helped evaluate the need to strike a balance between human spying and the use of technology, such as satellites, said former colleagues.

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