Bush defends pick of Hayden

White House seeks to counter critics of CIA nominee

May 09, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS AND GWYNETH K. SHAW | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS AND GWYNETH K. SHAW,SUN REPORTERS

WASHINGTON -- Moving to counter critics of President Bush's choice for CIA director, the White House mounted an intense effort yesterday to defend Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden as fit to lead the embattled spy agency.

Bush and his senior advisers worked to discredit early attacks on the nominee, whose military background and involvement with the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program have raised concerns among lawmakers in both parties.

"Mike knows our intelligence community from the ground up," Bush said of Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence and former head of the NSA. Hayden would replace Porter J. Goss, who is leaving the CIA after a turbulent tenure marked by personnel turmoil and turf battles with spymaster John D. Negroponte.

Bush, announcing an appointment his aides began leaking to reporters on Friday, called Hayden "supremely qualified" for the job. The president was flanked by Hayden, 61, wearing a blue uniform laden with ribbons and medals, and Negroponte, clad in a dark business suit.

Hayden, in a nod to critics, said he wanted to hear the concerns of members of Congress about the intelligence community.

"This is simply too important not to get absolutely right," he said.

Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he hopes that confirmation hearings will begin before Memorial Day.

Roberts said every senator on the panel should have a chance to question Hayden thoroughly before they vote, and that "if we do that, I think he'll be confirmed."

Hayden, respected by lawmakers who prize his breadth of knowledge and candor in closed-door briefings, is expected to win confirmation. But the hearings will likely be a forum for Bush's critics, over everything from how to fix a broken spy network that failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks and provided faulty intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs to the NSA's domestic wiretapping program.

`It's going to be brutal'

"It's going to be brutal, it's going to be ugly, and it's going to be delayed," predicted Paul C. Light, a New York University specialist in Washington appointments.

But senior Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, did not take a position on Hayden's confirmation, suggesting that the party might be hesitant to wade into a full-scale partisan battle over his post.

Staff questions

The handling of Hayden's selection has raised questions about the performance of the White House staff, which recently underwent changes.

Friday's announcement of Goss' departure, in which neither Bush nor Goss provided a reason for the change, is "just making people wonder even more," said Peter Brookes, a former official at the Pentagon and the CIA.

A new FBI investigation has been opened into whether the No. 3 CIA official under Goss, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, improperly steered contracts to a close friend, defense contractor Brent Wilkes, who is at the center of a congressional bribery scandal, the Associated Press reported yesterday. The FBI has been looking into whether Wilkes provided Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham - now in prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes from government contractors - with prostitutes and limousines for poker parties in posh hotel suites.

Foggo, who the CIA has previously said attended poker games but did nothing improper, has decided to retire, according to the report.

Defense on TV

With TV airwaves buzzing over the weekend with Republican criticism of Hayden, the White House made the unusual decision to dispatch National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley to a battery of morning news shows to pre-empt Bush's formal announcement and try to quell opposition.

Senior Bush administration officials argued that they fully expect a renewed debate over the NSA eavesdropping program, and that Hayden is the perfect person to explain it.

Hayden "will be very, very well-equipped and very well-prepared to answer any questions that might arise," Negroponte told reporters.

The spy chief also hinted at an olive branch to critics of Goss' tenure at the CIA, which has been marked by an exodus of experienced officials, who have either been ousted or resigned in frustration. Negroponte said Steven R. Kappes, one of the first senior CIA officials to have left the agency after Goss came in, was the leading contender to be Hayden's deputy.

"I think that's going to be a boost for the morale out there," Negroponte said.

Bush's team circulated a campaign-style fact sheet noting Hayden's qualifications. The White House effort was designed to rebut criticism of Hayden, said Tony Snow, the president's new press secretary, "and partly to get out ahead of it, too ... to have somebody talk about the fact that Hayden's an amazing guy.

"Everybody who talks about the nomination says, `He's really great, but-,' " Snow said. "It was really designed to stress his strengths."

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