Despite bipartisan criticism of the administration's domestic eavesdropping program -- with even Republicans like Sens. Arlen Specter, Pa., and John McCain, Ariz., expressing doubts about its legality -- the White House has clearly decided that electronic spying is a political plus, not a minus. Framing the issue as a choice between protecting America against al-Qaida vs. personal privacy, the White House followed up Karl Rove's strong defense last week by bringing out one of its super spies today, Deputy National Intelligence Director General Mike Hayden.
This is really unusual: Mike Hayden's public appearances are usually limited to annual reports to the Senate Intelligence Committee, normally very dry affairs. This time, he went into the belly of the beast, the National Press Club, to criticize public disclosure of the secret program and contradict New York Times reporting that it is "data-mining" that sweeps up innocent communications. (full transcript of Hayden's remarks)
Hayden repeatedly said that the program was limited, legal and targeted only al-Qaida operatives -- or, as he put it -- "people who want to kill Americans." Echoing Vice President Dick Cheney, Hayden claimed that if the program had been in place before 9/11, they could have caught the hijackers. He insisted that it was not a fishing expedition.
His other defense was "trust us," explaining that the people making the decisions about who gets spied upon are regular folks who shop and send their kids to school in Glen Burnie and Laurel, Md., near NSA headquarters. He said that they know the law, that the eavesdropping is limited and targeted "and the American people should not be worried."
Explaining why he didn't use the FISA (secret intelligence court) to get warrants first, he said he has two paths open to him. One is FISA, the other is presidential authority -- both legal. Why wouldn't he use FISA? Because, he said, one is better for operational reasons. The president's authorization allows him to track this kind of call more comprehensively and more efficiently. The trigger is quicker and a bit softer than it is for a FISA warrant, but the intrusion into privacy is also "limited" to international calls and only those they have a reasonable basis to believe involve al-Qaida or one of its affiliates.
Later, when asked about the fact that the law says if they go the FISA route, they can still eavesdrop for 72 hours before going to court, Hayden indicated that it is still cumbersome, because it requires getting paperwork first from the attorney general saying that he will be able to justify it later to a court.
He refused to be specific about whether they are going after individuals or groups -- citing operational reasons. He also said that when they don't seek FISA warrants, only a "handful" of senior executives in the NSA (equivalent to a senior military officer) make the decision.
As White House Correspondent Kelly O'Donnell posted in this blog last week, Hayden is the first act in a series of administration efforts this week to continue pushing back at its critics. The president will even go to NSA headquarters on Wednesday to make a more personal defense of the program.
Timing is important for the White House, and in this, it once again has had some unwitting help from al-Qaida. Last week, the terror group released another tape from Osama bin Laden -- just as it did only days before the 2004 election. Karl Rove (and Sen. John Kerry) know very well that any time George Bush is talking about 9/11 and Americans are worrying about Osama bin Laden, the president's poll numbers go up. And it becomes that much harder for critics, especially Democrats, to challenge the administration's assertion that there is a necessary trade-off between personal liberty and protection of the American homeland.