WASHINGTON - During his Senate confirmation hearing this week, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, the President's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, vigorously defended the legality and the necessity of the government's secret monitoring of international telephone calls between Americans and people believed to be terrorists.
But under intense questioning from senators, General Hayden stressed that he could be an independent voice at the CIA - capable of questioning intelligence judgments that appeared to be shaped around policy - and heed the lessons from the use of faulty intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
The Pittsburgh native, who has spent more than 20 years in the intelligence business and was the director of the National Security Agency between 1999 and April, 2005, is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate.
But General Hayden, who would replace Porter Goss, was closely questioned by members of both parties in a seven-hour hearing Thursday about how he would correct the recent turmoil and intelligence failures at the CIA.
A major concern for many senators was whether the four-star general would challenge the administration's resistance to sharing information with members of the intelligence committee about the secret, anti-terrorism programs that have started, which have trickled out in the press - such as the warrantless eavesdropping program first reported in the New York Times last December.
He also faced questions about a recent USA Today report that said the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans, which he would not discuss. But the committee conducted part of its hearing behind closed doors where they could discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
The line of questioning during the week was clearly shaped by concerns about whether General Hayden could avoid the pitfalls of former CIA chief George Tenet, who was criticized by several members of the committee for allowing intelligence to be twisted to justify the administration's desired policy course in Iraq.
"Heaven help us if we have more intelligence fiascoes similar to those before the Iraq war, when, in the words of the head of the British intelligence, the U.S. intelligence was being, quote, 'fixed around the policy,' " said Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.). "One major question for me is whether General Hayden will restore analytical independence and objectivity at the CIA and speak truth to power."
General Hayden said his top priority would be to reinforce the tradition of autonomy and objectivity at the CIA and he said he has studied the findings of the joint House-Senate inquiry into prewar intelligence.
He said there should be more transparency at the CIA about "what we know, what we assess, and what we know we don't know so as not to give a policy-maker, or a military commander - any decision-maker - a false confidence."
In response to Mr. Levin's questions about his views on the now-discredited prewar assessments showing a strong connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq, General Hayden said he was uncomfortable with the way those connections were ascertained by intelligence officers.
"If you want to drill down on an issue and just get laser-beam focused, and exhaust every possible - every possible ounce of evidence - you can build up a pretty strong body of data," General Hayden said. "But you have to know what you're doing."
But General Hayden also defended the CIA, complaining that the agency has faced an "endless picking apart of the archaeology of every past intelligence failure and success."
CIA officers deserve "not to have every action analyzed, second-guessed, and criticized on the front pages of the newspapers," he said.
That drew a surprising rebuke from Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who often came to General Hayden's defense during questioning.
"Not having your actions second-guessed is something that is earned, not deserved," Senator Roberts told General Hayden.
Pointing to what he described as the "egregious intelligence failure" about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the chairman said: "This committee simply cannot [take] intelligence assessments at face value."
Throughout the hearing, Democratic senators forced General Hayden to defend his role in designing the warrantless surveillance program, which General Hayden maintains is lawful and relevant to the nation's pursuit of terrorists.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) - General Hayden's most aggressive questioner - said he was having a "difficult time" with General Hayden's credibility because of what the senator views as misleading statements about the scope of the warrantless surveillance program.
General Hayden said his chief responsibility in public statements has been to protect classified information.
"Your challenge and your responsibility is to give your audience at that moment the fullest, most complete, most honest rendition you can give them, knowing that you are prevented by law from telling them everything you know," General Hayden said.
In explaining his vision for the CIA, General Hayden emphasized that his first priority was to build up human intelligence capabilities at the CIA.
In a nod to some senators' discomfort about the fact that a top military officer would take over a civilian agency, he said he would consider retiring from the military if it became an obstacle preventing him from "bonding" with his staff at the CIA.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mave Reston is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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