President Bush's nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, General Michael Hayden, has defended a controversial eavesdropping program he launched, as part of the war on terrorism. Critics question the legality of the program. Hayden spoke Thursday at his Senate confirmation hearing.
At issue is a program established by General Hayden, when he led the National Security Agency. The program is designed to monitor phone calls between people in the United States and suspected terrorists overseas.
Hayden sought to ease the concerns of some lawmakers, who have questioned the legality of the program, which bypasses a special federal court, that had been set up to approve domestic wiretapping operations.
Testifying in open session before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Hayden said the program's activities are closely supervised and reviewed.
"They are targeted at al-Qaida, there is a probable cause standard, and every targeting is documented," said General Hayden. "There is a literal target folder that explains the rationale, and the answers to questions on a very long checklist, as to why this particular number we believe to be associated with the enemy."
Hayden said the surveillance program is a necessary tool in the war on terror.
The chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, agreed.
"I can say, without hesitation, I believe the NSA terrorist surveillance program is legal, is necessary, and, without it, the American people would be less safe," he said.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, called on Hayden - if confirmed - to restore what he called analytical independence at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Levin is one of many Democrats who have argued that, in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, intelligence was manipulated to support the administration's desire to oust Saddam Hussein.
"The next director must right this ship, to restore the CIA to its critically important position," he said. "To do so, the highest priority of the new director must be to ensure that intelligence is provided to the president and Congress, [and] is, in the words of the new reform law, timely, objective and independent of political considerations."
Hayden acknowledged intelligence failures in the run-up to the war, and says the intelligence community has learned from its mistakes. He vowed to provide policy-makers with unvarnished analysis.
"We must be transparent in what we know, what we assess to be true, and, frankly, what we just do not know," he said.
Hayden was asked about the credibility of intelligence estimates that Iran could have a nuclear weapons capability in a matter of years.
"I would say that judgment was given somewhere between medium and high confidence," he noted.
Hayden, a four-star Air Force general, is currently the deputy director of national intelligence. If confirmed, he would succeed Porter Goss, who resigned earlier this month, after a stormy tenure marked by the departure of high level CIA intelligence officers.