Hayden nomination seems safe from NSA spying furor

Both parties expect tough questions for CIA chief nominee

May 13, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Bipartisan anger over the scope of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs continued to ripple through Capitol Hill yesterday, but there was little sign the concerns had derailed the confirmation chances of Gen. Michael V. Hayden to head the CIA.

Republicans and Democrats said they expect Hayden to answer tough questions about the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 eavesdropping activities - and recent reports that the NSA has assembled a huge database of records on Americans' domestic phone calls - before they approve his nomination.

But strategists in both parties said Hayden, a former NSA chief, is likely to be confirmed after what could be grueling hearings at which senators say they will focus on the latest revelations, which have been reported by several news organizations and confirmed independently by The Sun.

Hayden is "going to have to explain what his role was" in the recently reported effort, said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who sits on the Intelligence Committee. "He knows that he's not going to be confirmed without answering those questions."

Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware said the latest reports will hurt Hayden's chances of confirmation.

"He's caught right in the middle of this," Biden told CBS yesterday. "I think it's going to make it difficult."

The White House continued to defend Hayden, the four-star general President Bush chose Monday to succeed resigning CIA Director Porter J. Goss, as Republican strategists eagerly awaited a Capitol Hill battle over the administration's surveillance programs that they said plays to their party's strengths.

"We're 100 percent behind General Hayden; there's no question about that," said Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, adding that Bush's team is "confident that he is going to comport himself well" and answer senators' questions during his confirmation hearing.

Hayden, who made courtesy calls yesterday on the senators who will weigh in on his nomination, sidestepped questions about the latest revelations but made his second statement in as many days defending the NSA's activities.

"Everything that the agency has done has been lawful. It's been briefed to the appropriate members of Congress," Hayden said after meeting with Hagel. "The only purpose of the agency's activities is to preserve the security and the liberty of the American people, and I think we've done that."

Hayden said he is looking forward to the hearings, which are to begin Thursday.

Lawmakers in both parties reacted angrily to news about the collection of the phone records of tens of millions of ordinary Americans, a far more sweeping NSA program than the one Bush acknowledged late last year.

That program, which Hayden led and has played a central role in defending, was described as one in which the agency eavesdropped on international calls, including those in which one end was in the United States, involving at least one suspected terrorist.

The administration has neither confirmed nor denied the latest reports. But Bush said Thursday that the program did not involve listening to domestic calls without warrants and that it was narrowly aimed at al-Qaida and "fiercely protected" Americans' privacy.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, sidestepped questions about the phone call database report after a meeting with Hayden but said he has "no specific problems" with the general going into the confirmation hearings.

Democrats are treading carefully in their criticism, mindful that they risk opening themselves to criticism of being weak on security if they attack too aggressively.

The public appears to be broadly tolerant of the program, according to early polling, which is in line with earlier surveys that showed Americans generally willing to accept the previously revealed NSA warrantless surveillance program.

An ABC News/Washington Post survey Thursday night found that 63 percent of Americans supported the program as a way to investigate terrorism, with 35 percent objecting to it.

Sixty-five percent said tracking terrorists is more important than protecting privacy, compared with 31 percent who said safeguarding privacy is paramount.

Top White House campaign strategist Karl Rove has said that he wants security to be an overarching theme for Republicans this election year and has accused Democrats of being caught in a pre-Sept. 11 mindset and of being unwilling to take the steps necessary to protect Americans from terrorist threats.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, acknowledged that the issue is a "tricky" one for Democrats, but he said there is no reluctance to raise concerns about Bush's national security record.

"The Rove game plan to paint Democrats as weak is going to fail because they don't have a record to run on," Manley said.

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