Sunday, July 12, 2009

Former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden angrily struck back Saturday at assertions that the Bush administration’s post-9/11 surveillance program was more far-reaching than imagined and was largely concealed from congressional overseers.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Hayden maintained that top members of Congress were kept well-informed all along the way, notwithstanding protests from some that they were kept in the dark.

“One of the points I had in every one of the briefings was to make sure they understood the scope of our activity. ‘They’ve got to know this is bigger than a bread box,’ I said,” according to Mr. Hayden, who also previously headed the National Security Agency.

“At the political level this had support,” said the one-time CIA chief, jumping foursquare into an escalating controversy that has caused deep political divisions and lingering debate on the counterterrorism policies of an administration now out of power.

Mr. Hayden was reacting to a report issued Friday by a team of U.S. inspectors general, which called the surveillance program in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks “unprecedented.” The report also questioned the program’s legal rationale and the excessive secrecy that enshrouded it.

Mr. Hayden, who in 2001 designed and carried out the secret program, told the AP he is distressed by suggestions that Congress was not fully informed. He said he personally briefed top lawmakers on the entire surveillance operation and said he felt that they supported it.

The details of the wider surveillance program described by the federal investigative report remain classified. The program included the wiretapping of American phone and computer lines and was intended to detect communications from the al Qaeda terrorist network. That was revealed by the New York Times in 2005 and later confirmed by then-President Bush.

Several Democratic members of the House and Senate expressed surprise and concern Friday about the still-secret surveillance program.

Mr. Hayden asserted that just weeks after Mr. Bush approved the activity, senior Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence committees in the House and Senate started getting briefed regularly on its details. He said these sessions took place about four times a year. Mr. Hayden also said the number of lawmakers informed was intentionally kept small because the program was highly classified.

On occasion, he said, the briefing audience was expanded to include top members of the House and Senate leadership as well.

Mr. Hayden also said that the members of Congress who were briefed were told the average daily level of surveillance activity and the cumulative activity since the program started. And he said the meetings nearly always occurred at the White House, with Vice President Dick Cheney in attendance.

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