The U.S. Senate opens hearings this week on President Bush's nominee to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), General Michael Hayden, who is currently deputy director of national intelligence. But reports that the National Security Agency (NSA), which Hayden once led, secretly collected phone records of tens of millions of Americans could complicate his confirmation.
News reports say the National Security Agency has been collecting the domestic telephone records of tens of millions of American homes and businesses for massive databases that can be searched for clues about terror threats.
Senate Democrats have reacted with disbelief over the alleged program, first reported in the USA Today newspaper.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee:
"Only through the press will we begin to learn the truth of the secret collection of phone call records of tens of millions of Americans," said Senator Leahy. "Now are you telling me tens of millions of Americans are involved with al-Qaida?"
Democrats, and even some in President Bush's Republican party, are concerned the alleged program may violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure.
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, is vowing to bring officials from the phone companies involved before his committee for some answers.
"We will be calling upon AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South, as well as others, to see some of the underlying facts when we cannot find out from the Department of Justice or other administration officials," said Mr. Specter. "We are going to call on those telephone companies to provide information to try to figure out exactly what is going on."
But many other Republicans, including Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, believe the concerns are overblown.
"This is nuts," said Mr. Kyl. "We are in a war. And we have got to collect intelligence on the enemy, and you cannot tell the enemy in advance how you are going to do it."
President Bush would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the program, but said intelligence activities are conducted within the law, and that telephone conversations are not monitored without court warrants.
"The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval," said Mr. Bush.
Legal experts are divided over whether collection of such large numbers of communications data would require court warrants or subpoenas.
Lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee say General Hayden will be asked about the issue when the panel begins confirmation hearings Thursday.
Senator Chuck Hagel is a Nebraska Republican.
"He is going to have to explain what his role was," said Mr. Hagel. "Did he put that program forward? Whose idea was it? Why was it started? He knows that. He welcomes those questions. He knows he is not going to be confirmed without answering those questions. Whether that will be a complicating factor or just a factor remains to be seen."
Hagel spoke after a meeting with Hayden Friday. At a photo opportunity with the senator, Hayden repeated the administration position that the NSA conducts its activities within the law.
"The only purpose of the agency's activities is to preserve the security and the liberty of the American people, and I think we have done that," said Mr. Hayden.
The reports of the telephone data mining come in the wake of a controversy over another NSA surveillance program, one that allows for warrantless eavesdropping on international phone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and suspected terrorists overseas. The program bypasses a special federal court whose approval is required under law for domestic wiretapping operations.
The administration says the program is legal, and a necessary tool in the war against terrorism.
Hayden is also expected to be questioned about that program during his confirmation hearings.
If confirmed, Hayden would succeed Porter Goss, who resigned as CIA director last week.