After more than six hours of sometimes-tense Senate questioning, the confirmation of Michael Hayden to head the CIA still appeared assured.
The four-star Air Force general tried to look forward throughout the long day of grilling, even as senators repeatedly returned to controversies over the eavesdropping work he directed as National Security Agency head from 1999 to 2005.
The CIA needs to look ahead, he said.
“It’s time to move past what seems to me to be an endless picking apart of the archaeology of every past intelligence success or failure,” Hayden told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing Thursday. “The CIA needs to get out of the news — as source or subject — and focus on protecting the American people.”
Hayden said he would focus on traditional spycraft and reward risk-taking among the CIA’s operatives in the clandestine service. He’d push analysts to explain when they aren’t sure of judgments, but be unafraid of hard-edged assessments. And he’d focus the agency’s scientists, who once built a mechanical eavesdropping dragonfly, on developing technology to improve intelligence collection.
Republicans gushed over the nominee. “You’re going to be one of America’s best CIA directors, general,” Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told Hayden.
But some Democrats voiced strong concerns. “General, having evaluated your words, I now have a difficult time with your credibility,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who cross-examined him about his role in the NSA’s post-9/11 warrantless domestic surveillance program.
Approval next week?
The White House hopes the Senate can approve Hayden as soon as next week, allowing him to step in as Porter Goss departs on May 26. Even with the tough questioning, Hayden appeared likely to be confirmed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Hayden’s plans for the CIA indicate he is targeting flaws that have been highlighted repeatedly by commissions investigating Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq intelligence.
During Thursday’s questioning, he vigorously defended the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program as a legal spy tool needed to ensnare terrorists. But he also acknowledged concerns about civil liberties within the program and others he oversaw at the NSA.
“Clearly, the privacy of American citizens is a concern — constantly,” he said. “It’s a concern in everything we’ve done.”
Hayden sought to portray himself as an independent thinker, capable of taking over the CIA as it struggles with issues ranging from nuclear threats to its place among 15 other spy agencies.
Bush selected Hayden to be the nation’s 20th CIA director earlier this month, knowing his choice would inflame the debate about the NSA program to monitor domestic calls and e-mails when one person is overseas and terrorism is suspected. Breaking new ground, the work was done without court approval.
A USA Today report last week about NSA efforts to analyze the call records of millions of Americans added new grist to the discussion and prompted the administration to reverse course after five months and tell the intelligence committees more about the terror-monitoring work on Wednesday.
Hayden declined to openly discuss the reports, saying he would talk only about the part of the program the president had confirmed.
On the world’s hot spots, Hayden acknowledged a series of intelligence failures in the run-up to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and promised to take steps to guard against a repeat of such errors.
He called Iran “a hard target,” but said senators shouldn’t compare what’s known about Iran to the mistakes of Iraq. The Iraq estimate, he said, focused on weapons of mass destruction and ignored regional or cultural context.
“We’re not doing that on Iran,” he said. “Besides the technical intelligence, there’s a much more complex and harder to develop field of intelligence that has to be applied as well: How are decisions made in that country?”
Hayden said the number of terrorists in the world has grown, but they are reduced in capability. “This is a broader war,” he said. “And the war has got to be fought with all elements of American power.”