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Hayden Defends Domestic Surveillance to Senators

General Michael Hayden survived more than six hours of grilling before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday.

Hayden is President Bush's nominee for the top job at the CIA. He laid out a broad vision for the agency and said he wants to try out some "non-traditional" spying techniques. But the sharpest questions concerned Hayden's personal role in the controversy over the National Security Agency's domestic spying. Hayden said he consulted "my lawyers and my conscience" -- and he insisted the NSA is doing the right thing.

Hayden said he's "more than a little humbled" to be considered for the CIA job. He says he'll fight for a strong CIA, at the center of U.S. intelligence efforts -- in Hayden's words, the "star player on a football team." And he urged CIA spies to get out and take some risks.

"We need our weight on our front foot, not on our back foot," Hayden told the Senate panel. "We need to be field-centric, not headquarters-centric."

Hayden said it's also time for the CIA to move on from what he called the "endless picking apart" of past intelligence failures.

"CIA officers dedicated their all to serving their country honorably and well. [They] deserve recognition of their efforts, and they also deserve not to have every action analyzed, second-guessed and criticized on the front pages of their morning paper," Hayden said.

All that seemed to go down reasonably well with senators. But then came the questions on Hayden's past -- specifically, his time at the National Security Agency. Hayden was head of the NSA, when it first launched the counter-terrorism program that involves eavesdropping on some American citizens in the United States without a warrant. Missouri Republican Christopher "Kit" Bond led off the questioning.

SEN. BOND: Did your lawyers at the NSA tell you the program was legal? Do they still maintain it's legal?

GEN. HAYDEN: Yes, sir, they did, and they still do.

SEN. BOND: How about the Department of Justice lawyers, the White House --- the program was legal?

GEN. HAYDEN: Yes, sir. All of that was consistent.

SEN. BOND: Did you ever personally believe the program was illegal?

GEN. HAYDEN: No, sir.

Things went downhill for Hayden from there. Democrat Carl Levin's turn came next. He brought up reports from last week that the NSA is secretly compiling the phone records of tens of millions of ordinary Americans. Levin pressed General Hayden: Doesn't that raise some real concerns about privacy?

GEN. HAYDEN: I could certainly understand why someone would be concerned about this.

SEN. LEVIN: But that's not my question, general. It's a direct question.


SEN. LEVIN: In your judgment, are there privacy --

GEN. HAYDEN: You want me to say yes --

SEN. LEVIN: No, I want you to say whatever you believe.

GEN. HAYDEN: Yes, sir, and here's what I believe. Clearly, the privacy of American citizens is a concern constantly.

Hayden never actually confirmed the existence of the alleged call-monitoring program, nor did he shed much light on how it may be related to the eavesdropping program that President Bush has acknowledged. That effort reportedly targets only international calls to or from the United States.

But Hayden gave a little ground, under heated questioning from Democrat Ron Wyden, who challenged the general's credibility. He asked if Hayden intentionally misled people when he denied, back in January, that the NSA was throwing what he called a "drift net" over American cities. Hayden said he didn't mean to mislead anybody and that he'd chosen his words very carefully.

"I pointedly and consciously downshifted the language I was using," Hayden said. "So when I was talking about a drift net over Lackawanna or Freemont, I switched from the word 'communications' to the much more specific and unarguably accurate 'conversations.'"

That may seem a fine point. But the distinction Hayden is making is between monitoring phone records -- that is, who called whom, and how long they talked -- and actually listening to the conversations. Hayden maintains that the NSA does not listen to purely domestic calls without a warrant.

Most of the Republicans on the Senate committee seemed to accept that. Several Democrats looked less convinced.

But barring any unforeseen obstacles, Hayden now looks in good shape to be confirmed as the 20th director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Republican Chuck Hagel told him, "You're going to be one of America's best CIA directors."

There's no word yet on how quickly senators may vote, but there is a sense of urgency. Outgoing CIS Director Porter Goss officially departs one week from Friday. And with threats looming from Iran, North Korea and terrorists linked to al-Qaida in the Middle East and elsewhere, no one wants the CIA to stay leaderless for long.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.