updated 2/2/2006 3:33:24 PM ET 2006-02-02T20:33:24

U.S. intelligence officials told Congress on Thursday that disclosure of once-classified projects like President Bush’s no-warrant eavesdropping program have undermined their work.

“The damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission,” CIA Director Porter Goss told the Senate Intelligence Committee, citing disclosures about a variety of CIA programs that he suggested may have been compromised.

Goss said a federal grand jury should be empaneled to determine “who is leaking this information.”

But Democratic members of the panel accused the Bush administration of wanting to have it both ways.

“The president has not only confirmed the existence of the program, he has spoken at length about it repeatedly,” while keeping Congress in the dark, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the panel’s senior Democrat.

Rockefeller suggested that such “leaks” most likely “came from the executive branch” of the government.

Pointed exchanges
That brought a terse response from FBI Director Robert Mueller, who said, “It’s not fair to point a finger as to the responsibility of the leak.”

The sometimes pointed exchanges came as leaders of the nation’s intelligence agencies appeared before the panel in a rare public session to give a rundown on threats facing the world.

Committee Democrats sought to change the focus to the president’s decision to authorize the National Security Agency to eavesdrop — without first obtaining warrants — on communications to and from those in the United States and terror suspects abroad.

John Negroponte, who as director of national intelligence oversees all intelligence activities, strongly defended the program, calling it crucial for protecting the nation against its most menacing threat.

“This was not about domestic surveillance,” he said.

Negroponte: Terrorists ‘top concern’
Negroponte called al-Qaida and associated terrorist groups the “top concern” of the U.S. intelligence community, followed closely by the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea.

Goss complained that leaks to the news media about classified CIA programs — such as reported CIA secret prisons abroad — had damaged his own agency’s work.

“I use the words ‘very severe’ intentionally. And I think the evidence will show that,” he said.

Goss cited a “disruption to our plans, things that we have under way.” Some CIA sources and “assets” had been rendered “no longer viable or usable, or less effective by a large degree,” he said.

The revelations have also made intelligence agencies in other countries mistrustful of their U.S. counterparts, Goss said.

‘Stunned to the quick’
“I’m stunned to the quick when I get questions from my professional counterparts saying, ‘Mr. Goss, can’t you Americans keep a secret?”

Goss, when pressed, said he was speaking of programs run by the CIA, and would let NSA officials speak for themselves.

Gen. Michael Hayden, the principal deputy director of national intelligence and a former NSA director, said it was hard to characterize any damage done to his agency in an open session.

But, he said, “Some people claim that somehow or another our capabilities are immune to this kind of information going out into the public domain. And I can tell you, in a broad sense, that is certainly not true.”

After a public session lasting just under four hours, the committee and its witnesses went into a closed-door session.

Iran capability downplayed
In assessing risks to the United States, Negroponte testified that Iran probably does not yet have nuclear weapons, nor the fissile material needed for producing them.

“Nevertheless, the danger that it will acquire a nuclear weapon and the ability to integrate it with the ballistic missiles Iran already possesses is a reason for immediate concern,” he said.

Iran already has “the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East,” Negroponte said.

Meanwhile, he said that North Korea’s assertions that it has nuclear weapons are “probably true.”

Negroponte told the panel that some 40 terrorist groups, insurgencies or cults have obtained or want chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Negroponte spoke as U.S. and European diplomats worked behind the scenes to build support for their decision to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council over concerns that it seeking nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation board of governors began a two-day meeting on a European draft resolution calling for Tehran to be referred to the Security Council, which can impose sanctions.

First appearance
It was Negroponte’s first public appearance before a congressional committee since his confirmation hearings last April. His job was created by Congress to coordinate the work of the government’s 15 intelligence agencies

Negroponte said great strides had been made in fighting global terrorism.

“We have eliminated much of the leadership that presided over al-Qaida in 2001,” he said, “and U.S. -led counterterrorism efforts in 2005 continued to disrupt its operations, take out its leaders and deplete its cadre.”

But, Negroponte added, the terrorist organization’s core elements still plot and make preparations for terrorist strikes.

He suggested that “high impact attacks” would continue, and said al-Qaida continues to pursue chemical, biological and atomic weapons in hopes of attacking the United States.

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