Wiretapping preoccupied Hayden at NSA

His focus was on surveillance at expense of reform agenda

May 14, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- For Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, like many other Americans, Sept. 11 was a life-changing event.

He had arrived at the National Security Agency two years earlier with a mandate to drag, belatedly, the once-cutting-edge agency into the Internet era. But after the attacks, Hayden shifted focus to what would become known as the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. His broader reform plans, say former NSA officials, were never realized.

Now, as he prepares to take on a similar kind of overhaul at the beleaguered CIA, the warrantless NSA spying is again looming large with the disclosure last week that the agency's surveillance since 2001 has included gathering the phone records of tens of millions of ordinary Americans. The outlines of the program, revealed by USA Today, have been confirmed by The Sun.

While few expect the controversy surrounding the NSA operations to derail his nomination to head the CIA, some former colleagues worry that a debate over warrantless searches could distract Hayden and limit his effectiveness in his new role as well.

The legal obstacle

Hayden, a cerebral leader whose specialty is setting broad visions for sprawling government bureaucracies, faced a number of difficult challenges after Sept. 11. Among the obstacles was a legal one: NSA employees had long been technically capable of tracking phone calls that either originated or ended in the United States but they were frustrated at being legally required to stop tracking calls as soon as potential suspects dialed someone in the States, and they could not listen to purely domestic calls.

After Sept. 11, Hayden took a no-excuses attitude, said one former NSA official, and came up with a solution for the legal problem: President Bush could sign a secret authorization.

Hayden presented the plan for a warrantless program to a meeting of his senior managers in October 2001. Everyone in the room seemed to agree that, amid concerns about future attacks, it would be irresponsible not to employ technology that might help hunt down al-Qaida operatives.

According to former officials familiar with the meeting, legal concerns dominated the discussion, but Hayden was confident that with Bush's authorization under the president's wartime powers, the program would be legal. Such presidential "findings," as the documents are called, are often used for covert activity.

Hayden took charge of the program, often taking on duties that would normally be delegated to senior managers and demanding different kinds of statistics to bolster the agency's case for continuing the program.

"This became all managed on the eighth floor," said one former senior intelligence official, referring to the director's office at the NSA's headquarters at Fort Meade.

Meanwhile, many of Hayden's signature programs, designed to solve crippling technology problems at the agency, began to founder.

"On the one hand, you applaud his instinct in understanding this was very serious and different," one former senior intelligence official said of Hayden's immersion in the warrantless surveillance program. "On the other hand, there were so many other enterprise things that got no attention."

A reform agenda

When he arrived at the NSA, Hayden commissioned two evaluations of the agency and translated their recommendations into a reform agenda that included new programs with catchy titles such as "Groundbreaker" and "Trailblazer."

To build support for his new agenda, he also opened the ultra-shy NSA up to the public, and he began a series of regular "DIRGRAMS" - memos from the director - to report on the progress to agency employees.

Hayden marked his 100th DIRGRAM on June 1, 2000, with an early assessment of the agency's progress. "We might not get everything right the first time, but we will work to make everything right in the end," he said after a detailed listing of the progress on agency initiatives.

"The number-one reason for the disillusionment with Hayden is the fact that the revolution that he started with a vision that everybody accepted as absolutely necessary for the NSA he left unfinished and undone," said Matthew Aid, a former NSA analyst and Capitol Hill aide who is now an NSA historian.

But in a statement to The Sun, NSA Deputy Director William Black Jr., who worked under Hayden, credited him with guiding the NSA "from a Cold War-centric institution into a modern, agile organization meeting the challenges of the information age and thereby the Global War on Terrorism."

The Sun reported in January that Trailblazer has produced little more than a complex set of diagrams at a cost of $1.2 billion because the program's managers were never able to define what they wanted the program to do. NSA employees have since said that the program has been largely shut down.

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