The second-ranking member of the U.S. intelligence community offered a vigorous defense of a controversial electronic surveillance program Monday. General Michael Hayden was a key player in the surveillance program in which the National Security Agency intercepted phone calls and e-mails without a court authorization to do so.
Deputy Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden said the electronic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, or NSA, was both legal and necessary to intercept further terrorists attacks on the United States.
In a speech at the National Press Club, General Hayden said the NSA, which he headed from 1999 to 2005, only targeted people suspected of links to al-Qaida.
"The purpose of all this is not to collect reams of intelligence, but to detect and prevent attacks," he said. "The intelligence community has neither the time, the resources, nor the legal authority to read communications that are not likely to protect us, and NSA has no interest in doing so. These are communications that we have reason to believe are al-Qaida communications."
General Hayden echoed earlier administration statements that had the program been in place at the time, the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington might have been intercepted.
Shortly after those attacks, President Bush ordered the NSA, which is barred from operating within the United States, to eavesdrop on communications between people in the United States and suspected al-Qaida adherents without a court order. In doing so, the president bypassed the special secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, set up by Congress in 1978 to grant such warrants.
A barrage of criticism erupted after the special eavesdropping program's existence was revealed in a newspaper story. The American Civil Liberties Union launched a lawsuit challenging the program's legality.
The president has repeatedly claimed he has inherent power to order the surveillance and the program was legal. General Hayden's speech was the first in a series of events designed to blunt the tide of criticism.
General Hayden said he went beyond the White House and Justice Department legal justifications and also sought the opinions of the NSA's top lawyers who, he said, are well-versed in privacy law.
"Even though I know the program had been reviewed by the White House and DOJ, the Department of Justice, I asked the three most senior and experienced lawyers in NSA, 'our enemy in the global war on terrorism doesn't divide the United States from the rest of the world," he said. "The global telecommunications system doesn't make that distinction, either. Our laws do, and should. How do these activities square with these facts?' They reported back to me that they supported the lawfulness of this program - supported, not acquiesced."
But Ann Beeson, lead lawyer in the ACLU lawsuit, tells VOA she is not impressed with the rationales that have been offered so far by the administration.
"No defense that has been offered so far has answered the fundamental question, which is why the president broke the law," she said.
Beeson says she remains puzzled about the need for the warrantless eavesdropping program because the FISA court, as it is known, almost always grants government requests for warrants in intelligence cases.