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Archive for Thursday, May 18, 2006

First congressional briefings on NSA surveillance given

May 18, 2006

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— After five months of resistance, the Bush administration provided new information to Congress on the National Security Agency's eavesdropping Wednesday, hoping to help the architect of the controversial operations secure a new job as CIA chief.

Gen. Michael Hayden, who ran the NSA before becoming the nation's No. 2 intelligence official last year, faces what will undoubtedly be the toughest public questioning of his 37-year government career at today's Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing.

President Bush chose Hayden earlier this month to replace Porter Goss as director of the beleaguered CIA.

Hayden has come under fire in recent months for his stewardship of surveillance programs that he and others in the Bush administration say have helped stop terror attacks. Democrats and privacy advocates have questioned the price to civil liberties.

For the first time on Wednesday, the administration briefed the full House and Senate intelligence committees on the NSA's no-warrant surveillance program. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte also declassified a list of 30 congressional briefings that have been held since NSA began the program after Sept. 11, 2001.

Until Wednesday, the sessions had never included more than a dozen members at any given meeting, with 31 members briefed in all since the surveillance program began in October 2001, according to the newly declassified list. Democrats have pressed for more information since the operations were first disclosed in December.

The Senate committee chairman, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said it had become apparent that his entire committee needed to understand the NSA program before holding the hearing on Hayden, the NSA head from 1999 until 2005. "There was no way we could fulfill our collective constitutional responsibilities without that knowledge," Roberts said.

Wednesday's classified briefings were certain to have focused on efforts to monitor domestic calls when one participant is overseas and suspected of terrorism. But new questions also have emerged in the past week about the NSA's efforts to analyze records of the telephone calls of ordinary Americans.

USA Today reported last week that three of the four major phone companies provided information on the calling records of millions of Americans. Two of the companies - Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. - have since disputed key assertions that they provided vast amounts of customer data to the NSA.

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