Friday, May 19, 2006

Hayden defends eavesdropping

Hayden defends eavesdropping
By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gen. Michael Hayden, President George W. Bush's nominee for CIA director, strongly defended a domestic eavesdropping program on Thursday, saying it protected the country against terrorism and did not violate Americans' civil rights.

At a seven-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Hayden began with a plea not to make the CIA a political football. He won strong support from Republicans, while most Democrats seemed wary about attacking him.

The toughest questions came from Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and focused on Hayden's role as architect of Bush's domestic spying program and his own credibility.

Wyden said Hayden had not kept Congress fully informed of the eavesdropping program and had made misleading statements in previous appearances before Congress.

"General, having evaluated your words, I now have a difficult time with your credibility," Wyden said.

"So with all due respect, general, I can't tell now if you've simply said one thing and done another, or whether you have just parsed your words like a lawyer to intentionally mislead the public."

Hayden responded: "Well, senator, you're going to have to make a judgment on my character ... I was as full and open as I possibly could be."

Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency, had been expected to face tough questions about the eavesdropping, which the administration has defended as legal and necessary to protect citizens after the September 11 attacks.

Under the program, the NSA monitors international telephone calls and e-mails to or from suspected terrorists without first obtaining a court order.

Bush nominated Hayden, a four-star Air Force general, to replace Porter Goss, who was forced to resign as CIA director this month after clashing with intelligence chief John Negroponte over the spy agency's future.


The committee was not likely to vote on whether to endorse Hayden's nomination to the full Senate until Tuesday at the earliest, a panel aide said.

The full Senate must vote to confirm Hayden as CIA director. Most independent experts said there was little from Thursday's session to suggest he would not easily be confirmed. The committee held a closed session later, where questions might be more pointed but would remain secret.

The administration briefed the whole committee about the eavesdropping program for the first time only on Wednesday. Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold said he emerged from that briefing convinced the program was illegal and Bush had misled the country about it.

As head of the NSA, Hayden crafted and implemented the warrantless eavesdropping program in late 2001. It remained secret until it was leaked to the media in December 2005.

Feingold said he believes the general unintentionally misled Congress during a 2002 joint inquiry into the September 11 attacks, at which Hayden said the NSA would be restricted in tracking an al Qaeda target inside the United States.

"It was a mislead," Feingold said. "I think when you say you had no authority to pursue the target, the average person who knows enough about this would have concluded otherwise."

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe was the only Republican to complain that Congress had not been sufficiently briefed about the program.

"I happen to believe that, with the programs in question, that the Congress was really never really consulted or informed," Snowe said.

Earlier, facing friendly questions from Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond, Hayden said the eavesdropping was narrowly targeted to suspected terrorists, closely supervised and regularly reviewed.

"We have a very strong oversight regime," Hayden said. "Targeting decisions are made by people in the U.S. government most knowledgeable about al Qaeda."

Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin questioned whether Hayden would restore analytical independence and objectivity at the CIA "or whether he will shape intelligence to support administration policy and mislead Congress and the American people."