Hayden Before the Senate: Playing the Game Well

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CIA nominee Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday

Last fall, at the height of Washington Nationals fever in the nation's capital, everyone was invoking baseball metaphors — even John Roberts, the Supreme Court nominee, who gave a long treatise at his confirmation hearings comparing the job of a judge to a baseball umpire. But the Nationals are having a terrible season, and Washington is a football town anyway, so it was probably appropriate that General Michael Hayden often sounded more like he was being interviewed for the job of coach of his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers rather than CIA director. At his Senate confirmation hearing, Hayden said the agency he might soon lead had a role like "the top player on a football team" among the various intelligence agencies but "needs to focus on the scoreboard rather than individual achievements." He said the CIA had become the "football of American politics" and was taking "an inordinate amount of hits," and, describing the struggles with one CIA program, he remarked, "We should have been throwing short passes rather than reaching too far."

Hayden wanted to talk about how he could take the CIA to the end zone after he replaces the widely criticized Porter Goss, but what the Senators were really curious about was Hayden's tenure as head of the National Security Agency, when he was involved in the Bush Administration's programs that allowed warrantless intercepts of some domestic phone calls and a recently disclosed program that reportedly compiled the phone records of millions of Americans. And on those questions, the thin, balding Hayden, dressed in his Air Force uniform, appeared to follow the playbook of many administration officials testifying in front of Congress: say nothing. The nomineed refused to discuss almost any details of the intercept program in public, deferring discussion of them until a later, closed session with Intelligence Committee members.

That turned a hearing that had caused much anticipation in Washington into a bit of a bust. An hour into the Senate hearing, almost half of the members of the public in the audience had left; even Senator Trent Lott walked out, to return only near the very end. Hayden was so dull at one point that many in the room were listening more closely to the Fox TV correspondent who had forgotten to close the door to his broadcast booth and whose reports could be heard by almost everyone in the room. The Senators doing the questioning were far from scintillating either. Several GOP members challenged Hayden with such hard-hitting questions as: "Will you brief the committee when invited?" ("Yes, sir" Hayden" responded.) Democrats complained that few members of the Congress were told about the NSA's programs — but Hayden had nothing to do with the decision about which congressmen to tell about the program.

Still, Hayden surprised the Senators with his openness on a few issues. He questioned the use of intelligence by former Department of Defense Official Doug Feith, who had created an office in the Pentagon to explore the links between al-Qaeda and Iraq in 2002, comparing it to someone putting together a dossier on their child and including only negative information. He admitted he and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had some disagreements about the authority of the new national intelligence director. And in discussing the intelligence failures on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, his comments seemed to implicitly criticize the Bush administration's behavior before the war. He said the "customers" of intelligence — meaning Congress and administration — needed to have a "higher tolerance for ambiguity," suggesting there should be a willingness to allow more running room for "dissenting views that aren't hidden by a footnote." In 2002 and 2003, the view of some intelligence analysts that Iraq did not have WMD was often included only in the footnotes of memos the CIA assembled for the Administration.

That candor earned Hayden praise from even one of the NSA program's strongest critics, Democrat Russ Feingold, a member of the intelligence committee and a likely 2008 presidential candidate. Feingold asked a few tough questions, but he repeatedly emphasized his strong respect for Hayden. His positive comments and those of other Democrats suggest Hayden will be confirmed easily as CIA director, as they continue to try to carefully criticize the NSA program without appearing weak on national security issues.