Freshly briefed lawmakers to question Hayden today

Panel members received details of disputed NSA surveillance program

May 18, 2006|By GWYNETH K. SHAW AND SIOBHAN GORMAN | GWYNETH K. SHAW AND SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTERS

WASHINGTON -- Gen. Michael V. Hayden, President Bush's pick to head the embattled CIA, faces a Senate Intelligence Committee this morning that has been freshly briefed on details about the most controversial elements of his long career in the spy trade.

The National Security Agency's post-Sept. 11 surveillance programs - kept secret until six months ago - are expected to dominate the questioning of Hayden, but other issues are sure to come up.

Among them are whether the four-star Air Force general can separate himself from the Pentagon and what Hayden plans to do to push the CIA ahead.

"My concerns are on his qualifications," said Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who heads the committee. He said he wants to know how Hayden can continue the work of transforming the agency "without becoming an enemy of the institution."

Hayden, 61, would replace Porter J. Goss, who announced his departure this month after a sometimes stormy tenure that lasted less than two years.

Hayden, who has been deputy director of national intelligence for a little more than a year, was the NSA's chief for six years and has spent his career in military intelligence.

While at the NSA, Hayden oversaw the agency's warrantless surveillance program, which included wiretapping and collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans.

Although some of the phone companies identified in last week's USA Today report have denied providing information to the government, the prospect of a vast database of U.S. calls sparked new questions from lawmakers about the NSA's activities.

Yesterday, after a sudden reversal by the White House, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the current NSA director, briefed the House and Senate intelligence committees on the details of the surveillance program. Only select members of each panel had been privy to the information before yesterday's briefing.

Lawmakers were tight-lipped about the contents of those conversations, but most said they appreciated being able to hear more about the programs.

"It levels the playing field" because now all of the committees' members have the same information, said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican who had been briefed earlier on the NSA programs.

Hayden's defense of the warrantless surveillance program, which was disclosed in December, has raised the hackles of some senators, some of whom have suggested that it could derail his nomination.

A Democratic intelligence committee aide said yesterday's briefings took "some of the wind out of that sail," but committee members are still expected to press Hayden on the civil liberties element of the program in the public hearings.

Questions about its legality and about why Congress has been informed of the program in fits and starts are likely, the aide said.

Still, the aide said, the "vast majority" of questions about the NSA program will be posed in the hearing closed to the public, which will occur immediately after the open session is completed.

Roberts said yesterday that he is open to as many as three 20-minute rounds of questions for each of the 14 senators who will be at today's hearing.

The panel's top Democrat, West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, is recovering from back surgery and will not attend, but he sent Hayden a letter yesterday outlining some of his areas of interest, including the nominee's thoughts on his ability to be independent and the need for more effective congressional oversight.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said yesterday's briefing does not necessarily change the dynamic for today's hearing, because lawmakers still want Hayden to answer questions directly.

"I think what it does do is give people the background and substance that's necessary," she said.

Feinstein said she had asked for but had not received copies of the legal opinions written by the administration to justify the program, which has operated outside the purview of the secret court set up by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Ron Marks, a 16-year veteran of the CIA and a former Senate intelligence aide, said Hayden would be asked two kinds of questions: how to handle domestic spying and, on a more basic level, "whither the CIA?"

Marks said the congressional debate over domestic intelligence is long overdue and that he hopes it will spur a larger debate over what kinds of intelligence activities are acceptable within the United States. He also predicted a "full-fledged" fight over domestic intelligence, divided largely along partisan lines.

With regard to the CIA, Marks said senators will want to know where Hayden wants to take the agency and how it will fit into the structure congress created under the year-old post of director of national intelligence.

The senators also might ask about other programs, such as the failed $1.2 billion Trailblazer program, which was supposed to help the NSA pick key pieces of terrorism information out of a sea of data.

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

For a list of members of Congress who were briefed on the NSA's surveillance programs, go to www.baltimoresun.com/nsalist.

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