Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, President George W. Bush’s nominee for CIA director and architect of his domestic spying program, appears to favor changes in the law to allow judicial oversight of the program, a Democratic lawmaker and his staff said on Wednesday.
Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said Hayden told him in a private meeting he was concerned when he set up the highly secretive program that approaching Congress could reveal tactics, techniques and procedures used by U.S. intelligence to track al Qaeda suspects.
“He said, however, that with all the publicity that’s been surrounding this program, he may be closer to the possibility of asking for a change,” Durbin, the Democratic whip, told reporters after meeting with Hayden for 35 minutes.
“I hope they do and I think they’re going to find bipartisan cooperation. I want to find a way to make it legal for us to be safe as a nation.”
Asked by Reuters if he would consider subjecting the program to some form of judicial view, Hayden declined to comment.
“I’m sure you’ll hear a whole bunch of that during the committee hearing,” he said, apparently referring to the Senate confirmation hearing.
News of the eavesdropping program’s existence last December raised an outcry on Capitol Hill among lawmakers, including some Republicans, who believe Bush may have overstepped his executive powers by authorizing the initiative after the September 11 attacks.
The administration has said the program is legal and there is no need to change the law to accommodate it.
The program allows the National Security Agency to monitor the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without warrants, while in pursuit of al Qaeda.
Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker said Hayden expressed a willingness to consider legislation that would put the NSA program “as it exists now” under federal law.
“What the people in the room felt he was trying to say was that they want to continue using sources and methods they’re using now and would be willing to have that program, structured much the way it is now, reviewed by a judge,” Shoemaker said.
It was not clear whether Hayden believed the program could be best placed under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which governs electronic surveillance, Shoemaker said.
Some lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, believe Congress could increase judicial or legislative scrutiny of the program’s operations by changing FISA and so help assuage public concerns about potential threats to civil liberties.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has proposed legislation that would submit the program to review by a FISA court.
Hayden was nominated on Monday to replace Porter Goss as CIA director after Goss was forced to resign. Confirmation hearings before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are scheduled for May 18.
But the nomination has drawn fire from critics in Congress because of his central role in crafting and implementing the program as National Security Agency director from 1999 to 2005, and concerns about whether he should oversee a civilian spy agency while still an active-duty military officer.
Hayden’s apparent support for a change in law could go far in settling qualms among lawmakers who believe the program violates FISA, which requires the government to obtain a warrant for any intelligence-related surveillance.
Up to now, Hayden has warned that altering FISA would require a congressional debate that could divulge vital secrets about U.S. intelligence efforts to track al Qaeda.
© Reuters 2006