Buttressed by the White House, Gen. Michael Hayden resumed his meetings with lawmakers Friday as part of the process for his nomination to head the CIA.
But a meeting with Sen. Chuck Hagel led the Nebraska Republican to declare that he had many more questions about the new controversy over the surveillance programs Hayden piloted as head of the National Security Agency.
Hagel, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he supports Hayden but was “concerned” about the reports of the NSA collecting phone call records and that “the issue needs to be clearly aired.”
“Why did they do it?” he asked in a series of quick rhetorical questions to reporters. “Who did it? What’s the end product? What are the consequences? What could happen? Who controls it? Who sees this information? Explain to us how this in fact helps fight terrorism?”
“He’s going to have to explain what his role was,” Hagel said of Hayden. “He knows that he’s not going to be confirmed without answering those questions.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, praised Hayden as an excellent nominee but said Congress should ask tough questions about the NSA programs.
Collins, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said it was disconcerting “to have information come out by drips and drabs, rather than the administration making the case for programs I personally believe are needed for our national security.”
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow told reporters Friday that “we’re 100 percent behind Michael Hayden.”
However, Snow said, if some questions involved classified material, Hayden may not be able to answer them or would have to do so in an alternative session with certain lawmakers who are cleared to get such information.
The phone database disclosure, reported in Thursday editions of USA Today, could complicate President Bush’s bid to win Hayden’s confirmation. It also renewed concerns about civil liberties and questions about the legal underpinnings for the government’s actions.
Hayden on Friday defended the secret surveillance programs he oversaw while head of another spy agency as lawful and designed to “preserve the security and the liberty of the American people.”
But one of the phone companies asked by that agency to turn over its customers’ call records — Qwest Communications Inc. — refused after deciding the request violated privacy law, a lawyer said Friday.
A lawyer for former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio confirmed that the government approached that company in the fall of 2001 seeking access to the phone records of Qwest customers, with neither a warrant nor approval from a special court established to handle surveillance matters.
“Mr. Nacchio concluded that these requests violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommunications Act,” attorney Herbert J. Stern said in a written statement from his Newark, N.J., office.
Nacchio told Qwest officials to refuse the NSA requests, which kept coming until Nacchio left the company in June 2002, Stern said.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said the NSA was using the data to analyze calling patterns in order to detect and track suspected terrorist activity, according to information provided to him by the White House.
“Telephone customers’ names, addresses and other personal information have not been handed over to NSA as part of this program,” Allard said.
Several lawmakers expressed incredulity about the program, with some Republicans questioning its rationale and several Democrats railing about a lack of congressional oversight.
“I’m not sure why it would be necessary to keep and have that kind of information,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who wanted more details.
House Democrats called for a special counsel to investigate the NSA’s activities.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he would call the phone companies to appear before the panel in pursuit of what had transpired. “We’re really flying blind on the subject and that’s not a good way to approach the Fourth Amendment,” Specter said of domestic surveillance in general.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., an intelligence committee member, said the reports also raise questions about Hayden’s credibility. “He is the architect of the program. He comes to the intelligence committee, says how concerned he is about privacy,” Wyden said. “This is not what the public thought this program was all about.”
The NSA is the same spy agency that conducts the controversial domestic eavesdropping program that had been acknowledged earlier by Bush. The president said last year he authorized the NSA to listen, without warrants, to international phone calls involving Americans when terrorism is suspected.
Hayden would have overseen that program and any efforts to collect phone records of millions of Americans as NSA head from March 1999 to April 2005, when he became the top deputy to National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.
AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. telephone companies began turning over to the government records of tens of millions of their customers’ phone calls shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said USA Today, citing anonymous sources it said had direct knowledge of the arrangement.
The companies said Thursday they were protecting customers’ privacy but also had an obligation to assist government agencies in ensuring the nation’s security.