Democrats Hope for Domestic Spying Answers from Hayden

When the man nominated to head the CIA goes before Congress next week, Democrats will be ready with questions about his responsibility for warrantless wiretapping. Some Democrats may use the hearings for Gen. Michael Hayden to get to the bottom of the domestic-spying issue.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

One week from today, Senate confirmation hearings are expected to begin for Air Force General Michael Hayden, nominated by President Bush to head the CIA.

One issue sure to emerge is Hayden's role as director of the National Security Agency, which carried out a warrant-less domestic eavesdropping program.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold has already called for a Congressional censure of President Bush for the NSA warrant-less spying. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feingold says no issue matters more to him in Gen. Hayden's upcoming confirmation hearing.

Hayden, he says, is a very smart man.

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): But the problem is, he was not only in charge of, but supported, a program that I believe was illegal. How do you sort of ratify that without asking some serious questions?

WELNA: Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn warns such questions could backfire politically on Democrats.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): I really don't know what seems to be attracting them back to the issue when it appears to be such a loser for them.

WELNA: But Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, who is also on the Intelligence Panel, says the NSA's spying cannot be ignored.

Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): I'd rather run the risk of bringing it up, because if we don't discuss these things in an open, transparent, public process, we need to be able to arrive at a role to protect our civil liberties, protect our country, and, at the same time, presidents need to go by the law--the FISA Act, which is the foreign surveillance. If the FISA Act is klutzy and cumbersome, come to us with a reform package. Don't break the law, fix it if it's broken.

WELNA: And there are now signs that might happen.

Dick Durbin, who is the Senate's number two Democrat, met yesterday with Hayden and conveyed his concerns about the warrant-less spying.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): He suggested that maybe all the publicity about it has led it closer to the point where they may ask for a change in FISA law, so the president would follow the law.

WELNA: But perhaps because the NSA's spying is supposed to monitor suspected terrorists, other Democrats seem less inclined to press the issue.

Oregon's Ron Wyden is one of the senators who'll be grilling Haden next week.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): I'm sure some are going to say, oh, let's have a referendum just on this particular issue. My questions are about credibility and whether the person who comes to the witness table as a nominee to head the CIA is going to do what he says he's going to do.

WELNA: Still, there are bound to be a lot of questions about Hayden's role in the NSA surveillance, and some top Senate Republicans have started laying out a defense for him.

Armed Services Chair John Warner said yesterday that Hayden, who's not a lawyer, was simply following legal advice in carrying out the warrant-less spying.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia; Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee): So I believe that the committee, as it sorts through that, will eventually find that while we may not resolve the legalities of this program, we will decide that Gen. Hayden acted with prudence and guided by appropriate counsel.

WELNA: But Wisconsin's Feingold doubts that argument will carry the day.

Senator FEINGOLD: The American people believe in the law. The American people believe innocent people should not be wiretapped. And the American people aren't stupid.

WELNA: Feingold says Democrats should not worry whether pressing Hayden on the NSA's spying is a winning issue this election year. He says it's their duty as Senators.

David Welna, NPR News.

YDSTIE: One more note on this issue. USA Today reports that the NSA has been secretly collecting the phone call records of millions of Americans. The paper says the agency is using data provided by the phone companies to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity.

The program reportedly does not involve the agency listening to or recording conversations.

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