- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

Key Senate Republicans yesterday said confirmation hearings for the man nominated to head the CIA will center on questions about the Bush administration’s post-September 11 domestic eavesdropping program, which some lawmakers say is illegal.

Hearings are scheduled to begin Thursday for Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who oversaw the domestic surveillance program until last year as director of the National Security Agency.

“There’s no question that his confirmation is going to depend upon the answers he gives regarding activities of NSA,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “There are a lot of questions which General Hayden has to answer.”

“He is a first-class professional, but he has been in charge of a program where we need a lot more information,” Mr. Specter told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Debate over the program’s scope, which the administration has said includes only suspected terrorists, intensified last week after USA Today reported the NSA secretly gathered phone records of tens of millions of Americans.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns over the program’s legality because the administration conducted it without first obtaining secret warrants from a special panel of judges, as is required by federal law.

Mr. Hagel, who appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” said he supports Gen. Hayden, but that the “American people need to be assured that their government is, in fact, following the law.”

However, some leading Republicans yesterday downplayed any potential controversy surrounding the program. “I absolutely know it is legal,” said Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Mr. Frist told CNN’s “Late Edition” that he is “absolutely convinced that you, your family, our families are safer because of this particular program.”

Regardless, most Democrats argue the administration is conducting the program with dangerously unchecked power. “I think the administration is breaking the law,” said Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

“Sure, we all want to catch terrorists, but I am against an effort to have the executive branch monitor itself,” she said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, slammed the administration, saying he does not believe the NSA program is lawful, and that questions about it go beyond Gen. Hayden.

“It goes to the White House,” Mr. Leahy told CNN, adding that some may question the effectiveness of the program. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” he said. “If you have hundreds of millions of phone calls you’re trying to track a day, what do you get out of it?”

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