Monday, May 08, 2006

Lawmakers challenge Bush on likely CIA pick

Lawmakers challenge Bush on likely CIA pick
By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers, some from President George W. Bush's Republican party, are challenging his expected choice of a general behind a disputed domestic spying program as the new CIA chief.

They voiced reservations on Sunday talk shows about Bush's potential choice of Gen. Michael Hayden, deputy to national intelligence director John Negroponte, to head the spy agency following Porter Goss's resignation under pressure on Friday.

Senators said they would use Hayden's Senate confirmation hearings to learn more about the program of warrantless eavesdropping on Americans' international phone calls and e-mail in pursuit of terrorism suspects. Critics say the program threatens civil liberties but Bush defends it as essential to fighting terrorism.

Some members of Congress also said a general heading the CIA could give the Pentagon too much sway over U.S. intelligence gathering.

"The bottom line: I do believe he is the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time," said Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, on "Fox News Sunday."

The White House was expected to announce as early as Monday Bush's choice to replace Goss, who resigned after a contentious tenure at the CIA marked by an exodus of senior officials and tensions with Negroponte.

Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency which conducts eavesdropping operations, must be confirmed by the Senate if he is nominated.

Bush has said Hayden was the one who proposed the domestic eavesdropping program after the September 11 attacks. Revelation of its existence sparked a public and political furor.

Hayden's confirmation hearings would give Congress a chance to learn more about the program, said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"There is no doubt there's an enormous threat from terrorism, but the president does not have a blank check. Now with Gen. Hayden up for confirmation, this will give us an opportunity to try to find out," Specter said on "Fox News Sunday."

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, offered a lukewarm endorsement of Hayden, saying he liked him, but "I'm not in a position to say that I am for Gen. Hayden and will vote for him."

Roberts, whose committee will hold the confirmation hearings, said on CNN's "Late Edition" that a new CIA head must understand the agency's culture and mission. The spymaster must achieve change "without that person becoming an enemy of the transition. Now that's apparently in part what happened to Porter Goss," he said.

Goss left after clashing with Negroponte, who wants to move some CIA functions such as analysis to other intelligence agencies and focus the CIA on clandestine operations and recruiting foreign agents, intelligence experts said.

Hayden was considered likely to carry out the changes Negroponte wants at CIA.

Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" program, "I too have a little bit of concern, frankly, about military personnel running the CIA." But he said Hayden was well-respected.

Roberts suggested Hayden could answer some objections by relinquishing his military post and naming deputies with civilian backgrounds.

Hayden has "certain strikes against him," said Rep. Jane Harman of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. She cited his military background and his lack of experience building a clandestine service.

"And the third thing is that it's not clear he will be independent of this White House," she said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Harman cited a speech in which Hayden defended the domestic spying program as necessary and said current law was not "optimized" to deal with a September 11-type of terrorism threat.