The man chosen by US President George Bush to head the CIA will face the toughest test of his 37-year-old government career today when he faces a grilling by politicians over domestic spying operations.
The Bush administration is providing new information to Congress on the National Security Agency's projects, in a bid to help US Air Force general Michael Hayden, the architect of the controversial operations, to secure the CIA post.
Hayden, who ran the NSA before becoming the nation’s number two intelligence official last year, will be questioned publicly at today’s Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing.
Bush chose Hayden this month to replace Porter Goss as director of the beleaguered CIA. Goss resigned under pressure.
Hayden himself has come under fire in recent months himself for his stewardship of surveillance programmes that he and others in the Bush administration claim have helped stop terror attacks.
Democrats and privacy advocates have questioned the cost to civil liberties.
For the first time, the administration briefed the full House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees yesterday on the NSA’s no-warrant surveillance programme. National intelligence director John Negroponte also declassified a list of 30 congressional briefings that have been held since NSA began the programme after September 11 2001.
Until yesterday, the sessions never included more than a dozen members, with 31 members briefed in all since the surveillance programme began in October 2001, according to the newly-declassified list. Democrats have pressed for more information since the operations were first disclosed in December.
The Senate committee chairman, Republican Pat Roberts, said it had become apparent that his entire committee needed to understand the NSA programme before sitting in judgment on Hayden, the NSA head from 1999 until 2005.
Yesterday’s classified briefings were certain to have focused on efforts to monitor domestic calls when one participant was overseas and suspected of terrorism. New questions also have emerged in the past week about the NSA’s efforts to analyse records of the telephone calls of ordinary Americans.
USA Today reported last week that three of the four major phone companies provided information on the calling records of millions of Americans. Two of the companies – Verizon Communications and BellSouth – since have disputed key claims that they provided vast amounts of customer data to the NSA.
West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller, the intelligence committee’s top Democrat, wrote to Hayden yesterday to lay out misgivings regarding the general’s independence from the Bush administration, given his aggressive defence of the decision to conduct the warrantless monitoring.
“It is of the utmost importance that officials of the intelligence community avoid even the appearance of politicisation, and that its senior leaders set an example,” Rockefeller wrote.
He said he hoped Hayden also would explain how he planned to repair the CIA, which is struggling to find its footing after Congress passed a law in 2004 to overhaul and reorganise the nation’s spy network.