WASHINGTON—On paper, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden might seem to be a fine candidate for Senate confirmation as director of central intelligence.
He's not an expert on human spying, but he's made a career in the technical side of the spy business. He's considered an independent voice in an administration known for rewarding loyalty more than candor. And he regularly impresses lawmakers with his ability to explain the clandestine world.
But Hayden will testify Thursday at his Senate confirmation hearing amid intense congressional interest in the National Security Agency's warrantless spying program, which began while Hayden headed it. And some lawmakers also chafe at the way President Bush is changing the guard at the CIA.
The Senate is expected to confirm Hayden eventually, but first he'll face tough questions about the NSA's secret eavesdropping and phone-record collection programs. But because the programs are highly classified to protect national security, Hayden's most illuminating answers likely will be given behind closed doors.
Still, that won't stop members of the Senate Intelligence Committee from pressing him as far as they can while TV cameras are still whirring.
"The American public would surely have an interest and a concern if the government either is in possession or has access to or has, in some real sense, all the phone numbers that call them and that they call," Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, a senior Democrat on the committee, said in an interview. "So they're entitled to ... a fuller description of that aspect of the program."
The New York Times reported in December that the NSA was tapping communications in the United States to or from suspected al-Qaida allies without court warrants. Bush acknowledged the program's existence.
Last week, USA Today reported that the NSA also had collected records of millions of phone calls placed by Americans to detect suspicious patterns. The newspaper said the NSA didn't have access to the content of those calls.
Intelligence committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said any public discussion of the NSA's secret work would damage intelligence-gathering and counterterrorism efforts. Instead, he wants to steer the committee's questions to Hayden's ability to lead the beleaguered CIA.
"The hearings should focus on his professionalism and his expertise and whether or not he can continue the transition at the CIA without making an enemy of the agency," Roberts said in an interview.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said: "I don't think Americans need to know everything, because if they knew everything, then it wouldn't be worth anything. Then the terrorists would know it, too."
Hayden, who's spent 20 years in the intelligence field, served as NSA director for six years before becoming the deputy to John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, last year. Though a general, he's credited with fighting off Pentagon efforts to place the NSA under the Department of Defense, and he commands respect among many in Congress.
"He is independent, he's very candid, he's very forthright—one of the best briefers I've ever experienced on Capitol Hill," Roberts said.
But Levin said he'll quiz Hayden about his ties to the Bush administration, noting that the CIA's credibility suffered under former CIA Director George Tenet. Levin said Tenet exaggerated and shaped intelligence to "support the policy of the administration."
"That led us into a situation where we had totally erroneous prewar intelligence," Levin said. "I think (Hayden) has to be pressed very hard about that history."
One shadow over Hayden's confirmation is discontent in Congress with the way that Bush treated Porter Goss, Hayden's potential predecessor.
A number of key Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, publicly grumbled when Bush nominated Hayden to replace Goss as CIA director earlier this month. Goss, a former House of Representatives member from Florida, is well liked, and his abrupt resignation caught lawmakers by surprise.
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., opposes Hayden. Hoekstra complained this week that the White House didn't consult lawmakers about the expected nomination of Stephen R. Kappes to be Hayden's deputy. Negroponte identified Kappes, a veteran clandestine service officer, as the leading candidate for that role.
In an interview with the Washington Times, Hoekstra accused Kappes of "gross insubordination" when Kappes worked for Goss at the agency. Kappes had refused to fire his deputy, whom Republican staffers whom Goss brought with him from Capitol Hill had suspected of leaking unflattering information on one of their colleagues. Kappes instead resigned and now works in London for a security firm.
Neither Hastert nor Hoekstra get to vote on Hayden, however, because only the Senate confirms CIA directors.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060508 HAYDEN bio
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