Friday, February 03, 2006

Tempers Flare Over Spy Program at Rare Public Intel Hearing

ABC News
Tempers Flare Over Spy Program at Rare Public Intel Hearing
Brooklyn Bridge, Reagan Discussed During Senate Session

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 2006 — - The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's hearings are usually held behind closed doors, open only to people with top-secret security clearances or clearances so secret their names can't even be revealed.

But today its Democratic members made the most of their first chance to grill administration officials and the intelligence community on the secret domestic surveillance program enacted by President Bush shortly after 9/11 terror attacks.

The program was known only to the intelligence officers who administer it, the administration members who OK'd it, and the eight members of Congress who were informed but sworn to secrecy.

Secrets are hard enough to keep in Washington. So the revelation of a clandestine spying program kept quiet for four years has been a political focus in Washington since it was leaked to the New York Times late last year.

'Trust, But Verify,' Say Democrats

The hearing opened with National Intelligence Director John Negroponte's slow monotone, describing worldwide threats of nuclear peril from Iran and North Korea to how al Qaeda is sustaining itself both in Iraq and elsewhere.

Sen. Ron Wyden , D-Ore., cut Negroponte off in mid-sentence as he described the internal NSA and administration checks on the domestic spying program.

"That's not good enough," Wyden snapped. "You're asking us to trust you. Ronald Reagan put it well, 'Trust but verify.' And the American people and Congress can't verify."

Most Democrats -- and Republicans such as intelligence committee member Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, and Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter -- have raised questions about the secrecy of the program and the fact that it circumvents the Foreign Intelligence Security Act, which requires warrants for domestic wiretapping from a secret court.

Democrats walked a fine line in their criticism, trying to criticize the program without appearing soft on national security matters. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., for instance, said today he is not opposed to the wiretapping, but to the secrecy with which the program was enacted and conducted.

How Many Saved? Look at the Brooklyn Bridge

For their part, Republicans forcefully defended the program. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., zinged off some excellent one-liners about the need for secrecy regarding the program.

"I can tell you how many people have been saved by this program," he said, when Gen. Hayden of the Department of National Intelligence declined to say how many people were saved from death at the hands of terrorists by the program. "It's everybody who was on the Brooklyn Bridge when it would have been blown up."

Caught in the middle were the intelligence community representatives, who generally declined to comment on the program at all, saying they could elaborate later today when they met in a closed hearing.

Today's hearing marked the first of several shots senators will have at the political appointees who approved and administer the NSA program. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will likely undergo a similar haranguing next Monday when he goes before the Senate Judiciary committee.