- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

What happened to all the fireworks that were going to explode at the Senate hearings on the nomination of Gen. Michael V. Hayden as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency? They fizzled and he was confirmed Friday.

The many-eared ogre who has been listening in on every American’s personal phone calls turned out to be a calm, reasonable, eminently qualified four-star general who lived up to his reputation for quiet competence. His more aggressive critics had many suspicions to air but little evidence to substantiate them.

The general didn’t so much confront as rise above his accusers. Easily. Maybe because he didn’t have a political agenda, or a load of preconceived judgments weighing him down. He just had a job to do and did it, quietly and competently, as so often before.

It’s a familiar pattern in our shout-first, think-later culture: first the storm, then the calm.

Remember those scare headlines about Domestic Spying? They turned out to refer to wiretaps on international calls to and from this country, not domestic calls. And the hullabaloo died down.

Remember the Big Story about possibly hundreds of thousands of phone calls having been “monitored” by the National Security Agency on Gen. Hayden’s watch? It turned out to be about phone company records run through a data-mining operation to detect any suspicious pattern of calls from terrorists to their accomplices.

The committee heard the details in closed session and seemed satisfied, though the public isn’t being told the whole story — maybe for darn good reasons. (Loose lips sink security programs.)

Now the basis of that story has been denied by a couple of the companies accused of cooperating with the government in the interests of national security. (In today’s political atmosphere, what might once have been considered a duty has become an accusation.)

The next “scandal” should break any day now, and, if the earlier ones are any precedent, its course is predictable: First the wave of fear and outrage. Then, as the facts come to light, reason will slowly emerge — like a sandbar reappearing after floodwaters subside. ,A country can tear itself apart only so long before regaining its balance.

The most revealing exchange during these hearings may have come when one of Gen. Hayden’s more aggressive inquisitors — Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden — aired the theory that the general had “simply said one thing and done another or whether you have just parsed your words like a lawyer to intentionally mislead the public.” Mr. Wyden was only warming up to pose his accusation-question: “What’s to say that if you’re confirmed to head the CIA, we won’t go through exactly this kind of drill with you over there?”

The general declined to take the bait and get into a pointless argument about the insulting premise of the question. Instead, having been asked what assurances he could offer, the general went straight to the heart of the matter: “Well, sir, you’re going to have to make a judgment on my character.”

Yes, that’s what it comes down to in the end, doesn’t it? The best guide to whether an official (or any of us) can be trusted in the future is whether he’s proven trustworthy in the past — whether he has shown character.

The ranters and ravers can rearrange the facts to make them fit any scenario in their suspicious minds, coloring words to reflect their own dark theories. Domestic spying.

What defense is available to those whose duty it is to protect us? Only to patiently explain their decisions, even if the explanation is a good deal more complicated than the accusation. Even then, much of the explanation must remain behind closed doors, for the enemy is listening, too.

It is a common fallacy to believe truth is always simple, as in “the simple truth.” Sometimes falsehood is simple, the truth complicated and difficult to explain.

During the uncertain interval between a sensational accusation and its quiet dispelling, it’s not easy to judge who is more trustworthy — the witness before the committee or his interrogators. But there is one sure guide, and the general alluded to it: Character.

After these hearings, his shines.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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