Bush to widen briefings on NSA wiretap program

Concession could ease Hayden confirmation

May 17, 2006|By GREG MILLER AND JOSEPH MENN | GREG MILLER AND JOSEPH MENN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Reversing a position it has held for months, the White House agreed yesterday to brief all members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on a controversial domestic wiretapping operation -- just one day before the architect of the program faces a contentious confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.

In making the last-minute concession, the Bush administration is seeking to improve the prospects of the president's nominee to be the next CIA director, Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, by pre-empting attacks from lawmakers angry that they have been kept in the dark on domestic spying activities.

Meanwhile yesterday, Verizon Communications Inc. became the second phone company to deny that it gave customer calling records to the National Security Agency as part of a separate program in which the NSA is accused of assembling records on tens of millions of U.S. citizens. BellSouth Corp. issued a similar statement Monday, leaving only AT&T among the three companies named by USA Today as having granted access to electronic databases.

Ever since news reports divulged last year that President Bush had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on U.S. residents without court warrants, the White House has insisted that it was too risky to reveal details of the program to more than a select group of lawmakers.

The decision to abandon that position came after the White House received warnings from prominent Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that Hayden would face a hostile hearing if members voting on his confirmation were not trusted with information on the most controversial program he ran.

"It became apparent that in order to have a fully informed confirmation hearing, all members of my committee needed to know the full width and breath of the president's program," Roberts said in a written statement.

Hayden served as director of the NSA for five years and played a major role in designing and overseeing the program, which involved intercepting the international communications of thousands of U.S. residents in an effort to identify and track suspected terrorists. Hayden now serves as the deputy director for national intelligence, but was tapped two weeks ago by Bush to take the helm at the CIA.

Bush addressed the dispute again yesterday, defending the program as necessary to fight terrorism and repeating earlier statements that the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the decision to expand the briefings reflects frustration within the administration with how the domestic surveillance programs have been portrayed.

The White House has said that Bush, in his role as commander in chief, had the authority to allow the NSA to bypass laws passed in the late 1970s requiring the government to secure permission from a special court before placing U.S. residents under electronic surveillance for intelligence purposes.

Bush launched the program after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the White House has said it is limited to international calls between U.S. residents and individuals overseas suspected of having ties to al-Qaida.

But critics have called the program illegal, and have argued that the White House was required by the 1947 National Security Act to provide a full briefing on all aspects of the program to the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

The first of the expanded briefings is to take place at 2 p.m. today, when Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who succeeded Hayden as director of the NSA, is scheduled to discuss the operation in closed session with all 15 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The House panel will get a similar briefing at a later date.

Yesterday, Verizon became the second local phone company to deny that it gave customer calling records -- including what numbers its customers dialed and when -- to the NSA.

Verizon, which acquired long-distance carrier MCI Inc. in a deal that became final in January, did not deny that MCI had provided such data.

USA Today spokesman Steve Anderson said the newspaper "will look closely into the issues raised by BellSouth's and Verizon's statements." The paper relied mainly on unnamed sources for its assertions that the NSA had compiled databases of domestic calls, but the government has not denied the claims.

"We're confident in our coverage of the phone database story," Anderson said.

In BellSouth's statement Monday, the company did not rule out the possibility that its records found their way to the NSA indirectly.

AT&T, the country's largest long-distance company, has not denied involvement. AT&T is now owned by the former SBC Communications.

The former chief executive at the one company said to have refused an NSA request, Qwest Communications International Inc., has confirmed the newspaper's account of his role.

Greg Miller and Joseph Menn write for the Los Angeles Times.

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