Nominee for counterterrorism chief is grilled on Guantanamo Bay detainee plans


Matt Olsen, President Barack Obama's choice to become director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, center, is greeted on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 26 by Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and committee member Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., prior to testifying before the committee's hearing on his nomination. (Evan Vucci/AP)
July 26, 2011

President Obama’s nominee to be the nation’s counterterrorism chief defended himself Tuesday against allegations that he had misled a congressman about plans to resettle Guantanamo Bay detainees in Northern Virginia.

Matthew Olsen, chosen to head the National Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate panel that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) may have been suffering from a “misrecollection” about their conversations more than two years ago. Wolf said this month that Olsen had told him in the spring of 2009 that no decision had been made about the transfer of Chinese Muslim detainees, known as Uighurs, to his district.

“At no time did I say there was no decision,” Olsen told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during a confirmation hearing, adding that he had been authorized to discuss only how detainees’ cases were being assessed, not where detainees might be transferred or whether they might be prosecuted.

Olsen acknowledges that he was aware of the administration’s intention to transfer the detainees to Virginia but was not authorized to tell Wolf. The administration later canceled its plans. At the time, Olsen directed the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force, overseeing the administration’s assessment of every detainee at the facility in Cuba.

Wolf insisted Tuesday that he was led to believe that no decision had been made on moving the Uighurs.

“Had he not been able to discuss it, all he had to do was say, ‘I’m not allowed to discuss it,’ ” Wolf said in a phone interview. “He didn’t say, ‘I can’t get into that.’ ”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the committee’s ranking Republican, said he was concerned that “a member of congress feels he has been misled.” He asked Olsen to provide the names of other officials who attended the meeting with Wolf.

The exchange with Wolf two years ago was raised almost immediately at the hearing on Tuesday by Chambliss and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the panel’s chairman.

Despite the questioning, none of the committee members indicated that they would oppose Olsen’s nomination.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Olsen, who is general counsel at the National Security Agency, a series of oblique questions about possible legal authorities derived from the USA Patriot Act, which governs various surveillance activities. Olsen said the questions could be answered fully only in a classified setting.

Wyden asked whether there are “significant secret interpretations” of the Patriot Act and amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that remain secret. Olsen said only that relevant opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court remain classified.

Wyden asked if the government can use cell-site data to track Americans in the United States for intelligence purposes. Olsen replied: “There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist.”

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