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Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, President Bush's nominee for director of Central Intelligence has defended the NSA's wiretapping programs, saying they were meant to "preserve the security and the liberty of the American people."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden told the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday that he believed the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program was legal when it began shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that it remains legal.
Gen. Michael Hayden faced tough, bipartisan grilling Thursday from a Senate panel weighing his nomination to head the CIA. The four-star general repeatedly defended the legality of two controversial surveillance programs begun at the NSA during his six years at the helm of the top-secret intelligence agency. Listen to audio highlight's from the hearing:
The response to Hayden's nomination isn't falling strictly along party lines.
Several Democrats on Capitol Hill credit Hayden as a leading figure in the intelligence community.
But a number of lawmakers from both parties are concerned about Hayden's ability, as an Air Force general, to operate independently from the Pentagon.
Revelations continue about the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program, due to congressional pressure, lawsuits and press reports.
In a Q&A, NPR telecommunications correspondent Larry Abramson helps unravel what's publicly known about what the NSA has been up to.
Some of the most interesting aspects of the domestic spying debate can be found in the source material. Selected transcripts, court filings and statements — highlighting some of the key elements — are available here.
"When I had to make this personal decision in October 2001... the math was pretty straightforward. I could not not do this," the four-star general told the committee.
Hayden faced tough questioning from the Senate panel, which is holding hearings on his nomination to head the CIA. The hearings come at a time of transition for the CIA, a vast and controversial agency battling morale problems as it redefines itself in the post-Sept. 11 world.
Hayden has an extensive background in both military and civilian intelligence-gathering. He headed the National Security Agency (NSA) from 1999 to 2005 before becoming deputy to Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.
Tenure at the NSA
During Hayden's tenure at the NSA, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the agency engaged in the interception of telephone calls and e-mails between people inside the United States and people in other countries who were suspected of having ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. The agency did this without obtaining warrants from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was created in 1978 to handle such cases in secrecy.
During this same time period, the NSA is also reported to have gathered the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, according to a story published by USA Today on May 11. The White House has confirmed the no-warrant eavesdropping but said the program was legal under powers granted to the administration by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The White House has refused to confirm or deny the development of a phone-call database at NSA. Two of the telephone companies cited in the article as cooperating in the program have since denied doing so.
Responding to these stories, Hayden has said the NSA always conducted its work in a manner that was both lawful and careful to protect civil liberties and privacy rights. While he did not acknowledge the existence of a telephone record data-mining program during Thursday's hearing, Hayden said that the NSA uses the concept of probable cause as a standard in its surveillance program.
"But the standard that is most applicable to the operations of NSA is the standard of reasonableness, you know?" Hayden told the committee.
Intelligence Community's Shifting Structure
Hayden's nomination came just days after the former CIA director, Porter Goss, resigned the position under pressure. Still reeling from the failures of intelligence prior to Sept. 11 and regarding Iraq's weapons programs, the CIA under Goss underwent massive changes. Many of these changes were unpopular within the agency and prompted significant retirements among senior agency officials.
Goss was also superseded in the hierarchy of the national intelligence structure by Negroponte, as the CIA was placed under the newly created Director of National Intelligence. Negroponte also assumed the key task of delivering the daily intelligence briefing to President Bush.
Bush has expressed great confidence in Hayden, saying he is "the right man to lead the CIA at this critical moment." However, the president, whose approval rating is at the lowest of his two terms, won't have an easy time getting his nomination through the Senate.
Reservations on Both Sides of the Aisle
Despite Hayden's longstanding popularity as a briefing officer on Capitol Hill and his personal visits to key senators, reservations about his appointment remain on both sides of the aisle.
Democratic senators have voiced concern about his involvement in the domestic spying program put in place after Sept. 11, and senators from both parties have raised questions about placing a military commander in control of a mostly civilian agency. This comes at a time when the CIA is battling with the Pentagon over which agency has dominance on overseas espionage.
When asked whether he will retire from the military to accept the CIA post, Hayden, who was dressed in his Air Force uniform, told the panel: "The fact that I have to decide what tie to put on in the morning doesn't change who I am."
He said a more important issue was whether he could "bond" with those at the CIA. If the uniform "gets in the way of that, I'll make the right decision," Hayden said.
Public opinion about the controversial wiretapping programs is divided. Following the news that the NSA keeps a database of phone-call information, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 63 percent of Americans felt the program was an acceptable way to investigate terrorism.
But another, larger poll by Gallup for USA Today, taken after the story had been in the news for two days, found that a bare majority of Americans disapproved of the NSA compiling domestic telephone records. Slightly different wording was used in the two polls.
After the open hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee, the panel is expected to question Hayden further in closed session. It will then vote on recommending him to the full Senate. If it does so, the Senate could approve his nomination as soon as next week.
Generally, a nomination is dead if it does not receive approval in committee. But in some cases, the full Senate has chosen to hold a confirmation vote even without a positive recommendation from the committee that has held hearings.