General Michael Hayden -- U.S. President George W. Bush's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA -- appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee today. The panel must decide whether to endorse Hayden before the full Senate votes on his nomination. Most members of the committee favor the general, who served as director of the secretive National Security Agency, or NSA, from 1999 to 2005. But they also have expressed concern about the quality of the country's intelligence in recent years. Some also are uneasy about recent reports dealing with the scope of the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program.
WASHINGTON, May 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- When the United States led the invasion of Iraq three years ago, the issue was weapons of mass destruction.
At the time, the Bush administration cited intelligence that said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was building nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to threaten the United States and its allies. By the end of 2003, however, it was clear that Hussein had no such arsenal.
Now the United States -- along with Britain, France, and Germany -- are trying to persuade Iraq's neighbor, Iran, to give up its nuclear program, which they say appears to be aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran so far has refused.
Bush says he has every intention of resolving the dispute diplomatically, but pointedly says all options -- including military intervention -- are on the table.
The Credibility Question
At today's confirmation hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California) asked Hayden whether the American people should share Bush's concern about Iran's nuclear program.
"Given the problems with estimates of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, how can the American public be confident of the accuracy of estimates regarding Iranian plans and programs?" Feinstein asked.
Hayden acknowledged that the CIA now has to regain the public's confidence. He said the U.S. intelligence community has learned a lot of lessons since the embarrassment over Iraq's suspected weapons program.
The nominee pointed to one lesson in particular: the intelligence-gathering method used in Iraq was entirely technological, he said, lacking what he called "a regional or cultural context."
"We're not doing that on Iran," he said. "Besides the technical intelligence, there's a much more complex and harder-to-develop field of intelligence that has to be applied as well: How are decisions made in that country? Who are making those decisions? What are their real objectives?"
Defending Domestic Surveillance
It was only one of several challenges Hayden faced as he sought to convince the senators he is the right man to run the CIA. Another concern has to do with a domestic surveillance program being carried out by the NSA in the fight against Al-Qaeda, which is blamed for the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The NSA has been eavesdropping on some domestic telephone calls to or from foreign countries. Under U.S. law, such surveillance requires a court warrant. Bush has argued that the NSA is trying to intercept what he says are suspected Al-Qaeda calls. He says that during wartime, a president is authorized to use any tool at his disposal to protect the country.
That eavesdropping program came to light in a report last December in "The New York Times" newspaper. Just a week ago, another newspaper, "USA Today," reported that three of the country's four leading telephone companies gave the NSA records of all their customers' calls -- domestic and foreign - made since the 2001 attacks.
That report figured prominently during today's hearing. Hayden was director of the NSA when the domestic surveillance program was conceived, and has said repeatedly that he believes it is lawful.
Senator Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon) recalled that in 2002, Hayden told the committee investigating the September 11 attacks that the three branches of government -- the White House; Congress; and the judiciary -- needed to develop appropriate ways to gather intelligence to prevent future attacks, and yet respect the privacy of average citizens.
According to Wyden, at that time Hayden repeatedly used the word "we" to include all three branches of government. Yet, he said, he could find no "we" in how the domestic spying program was set up.
"Whatever was done, you did it unilaterally, and as far as I'm aware, 'we' as a country weren't part of any effort to set the standards in these programs," Wyden said. "And most of the members of this committee were kept in the dark and weren't part of any informed debate about these programs. So, general, who is the 'we' that you have been citing?"
Hayden replied that he did indeed brief not only certain members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, but also the chief judge of the court that rules on federal wiretaps. He said he also clearly recalled testifying before the commission in 2002.
He characterized his testimony this way: "'What I really need is to understand, for you to help me understand, [is] where the American people draw the line between liberty and security.' Senator, I believed that then, I believe it now. I used all the tools I had available to me to inform the other two branches of government exactly what NSA was doing."
Despite such concerns, most observers expect Hayden to be approved by the full Senate. One is James Andrew Lewis, an intelligence analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research center.
Lewis says the senators are merely warning Bush that he needs to be more careful. He says that is particularly true with regard to the NSA's domestic surveillance program:
"It is surely the thing that Congress will focus on the most. And I think my own bet -- even though it is a little cynical -- is that what Congress will do is use this as an opportunity to make a lot of statements, to warn the administration and to push back a little," Lewis said. "But at the end of the day they will let General Hayden through because they want to remind the administration that they need permission to do these things, but they don't want to be seen as blocking an administration appointment in the middle of a war on terror."
Some senators have raised other objections to Hayden's nomination, including that he is an Air Force general hoping to lead the CIA, a civilian agency. Lewis says that concern is -- to use his word -- "overblown."
Lewis notes that Hayden has been an intelligence professional -- not a warrior -- throughout his career, so his military status should have no bearing on his suitability to direct the CIA.
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