White House Set to Fight for Hayden

President Bush witnessed Gen. Michael V. Hayden's swearing-in as deputy director of national intelligence a year ago.
President Bush witnessed Gen. Michael V. Hayden's swearing-in as deputy director of national intelligence a year ago. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 7, 2006

The nomination of Gen. Michael V. Hayden to take over the CIA would trigger a fresh battle over the secret warrantless surveillance program he oversaw on behalf of President Bush, a debate that could help shape the contours of the fall midterm congressional elections, officials in both parties said yesterday.

Barring a change of heart, aides expect Bush to name Hayden tomorrow as his choice to succeed CIA director Porter J. Goss, who resigned under pressure Friday. Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency and now deputy director of national intelligence, has become the most forceful defender of Bush's eavesdropping program since its disclosure in December.

Rather than steer away from a Hayden nomination because of the controversy, the White House seems ready for a new fight over it, convinced that it has public support and that Democrats opposing Hayden's confirmation would risk looking weak on terrorism. Democrats yesterday began formulating a strategy built around grilling Hayden during hearings and then determining whether any refusal to answer questions provides enough justification to oppose his confirmation.

"By nominating him, they are looking for a confrontation and forcing the Congress to take sides, so I am troubled by this," said Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, who has a close relationship with Hayden and considers him "very professional and dedicated."

A senior White House official said Bush did not choose Hayden to pick a fight but would welcome one if it came. "We felt that we're in a position on offense," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the nomination has not been announced. "We have no concerns about a public debate over the terrorist surveillance program."

Not only Democrats expect to use a Hayden nomination to revisit the legality of the surveillance, however. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has held four hearings on the matter, said he may try to hold up Hayden's confirmation if the administration does not provide more information about the eavesdropping. He said he would try to persuade fellow senators to use the confirmation as "leverage."

"I was briefed by General Hayden and I got virtually no meaningful information," Specter said in an interview. "Now with Hayden up . . . this gives us an opportunity to ask these questions and insist on some answers if the Senate is of a mind to deny confirmation."

Although Hayden has enjoyed a strong reputation among lawmakers from both parties and never encountered confirmation trouble in the past, his selection also would raise questions about the rising military influence over U.S. intelligence and about his ability to be independent from Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

If he is confirmed, Hayden would face the challenge of rebuilding an agency that has gone through a tumultuous period, first by failing to prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then by misjudging Iraq's weapons program and most recently by enduring the break-the-china management of Goss, who drove many veterans out of Langley.

Hayden's appointment would come at a critical time for U.S. intelligence as the White House is ratcheting up pressure on Iran to abandon any aspirations for nuclear weapons. A presidential commission last year derided the intelligence community's understanding of Iran. And because of the flawed Iraq assessments, Bush has acknowledged that he faces a serious credibility problem in convincing the American public and the world that his intelligence on Iran is reliable.

Goss stepped down after Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte told him in April to leave by May. White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino yesterday said it was "categorically untrue" that Goss lost Bush's confidence almost from the start of his 18-month tenure, but neither Goss nor the White House offered a public explanation for his resignation.

As he left his home in Washington yesterday, Goss told CNN his departure is "just one of those mysteries" and declined to elaborate. He then flew to Ohio, where he delivered a commencement address at Tiffin University. "If this were a graduating class of CIA case officers, my advice would be short and to the point: Admit nothing, deny everything and make counteraccusations," Goss, a former CIA officer, told the audience. "Clearly, that doesn't translate well beyond the world of the clandestine service, so I have some other thoughts I'd like to offer."

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