Officials Closemouthed on Eavesdropping
The nation’s top intelligence officials resisted pressure to provide more details about a controversial domestic eavesdropping program during congressional testimony Thursday, but said without elaborating that the operation had enabled authorities to disrupt potential terrorist plots.
National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte and other senior officials declined to respond to questions about the surveillance program, refusing to say in a public session how many Americans had been targeted or how many e-mails and phone calls had been intercepted.
The issue dominated a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that was otherwise devoted to a survey of international threats to U.S. interests. Negroponte described Al Qaeda as the U.S. intelligence community’s “top concern” and said that the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea represented threats.
But he spent much of the four-hour session defending the eavesdropping program, in which the National Security Agency has intercepted communications of U.S. residents without obtaining court warrants ordinarily required by law. Bush administration officials have said the program is limited to eavesdropping on people in the U.S. who are in contact with individuals abroad suspected of having links to Al Qaeda.
“This was not about domestic surveillance,” Negroponte said. “It was about dealing with the international terrorist threat in the most agile and effective way possible.”
Thursday’s hearing marked the first time that senior intelligence officials had testified before Congress about the NSA program.
The session exposed deep fault lines between lawmakers over the issue, with Republicans and Democrats engaging in unusually harsh exchanges over whether the Bush administration had the authority to order the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans, and whether it had provided adequate notice to Congress.
At the close of the hearing, committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) angered Democrats by suggesting they were more focused on threats to civil liberties by intelligence agencies than threats from terrorist networks.
“I would only point out that you really don’t have any civil liberties if you’re dead,” Roberts said.
The leading Democrat on the panel, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, responded testily that he was “strongly for the goals” of disrupting domestic terrorist plots.
“But I want it to be done under the law,” Rockefeller said. “And so should you. That’s what keeps our country together.”
The NSA program has been the focus of heated debate on Capitol Hill since its existence was disclosed in a December report in the New York Times. The Senate Judiciary Committee is to hold hearings next week on the issue.
Officials complained that news organizations’ exposure of the NSA operation and others had hampered the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
“The damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission,” said CIA Director Porter J. Goss, who added that some “assets” had become “no longer viable or usable, or less effective by a large degree.” He did not elaborate.
The White House has vigorously defended the legality of the NSA program, saying that the president has expansive executive authority, and an obligation to protect the country, in wartime.
At one point during Thursday’s session, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked a series of questions that underscored Democrats’ discomfort with the Bush administration’s assertion of executive power.
First she asked whether intelligence agencies had been authorized to search -- without first obtaining a warrant -- the homes of Americans suspected of ties with Al Qaeda.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said he was “not aware of that happening.”
Feinstein then asked whether any intelligence agency had “been authorized to or carried out the killing of anyone on U.S. soil based on a link to Al Qaeda.”
Both Negroponte and Mueller said they were “not aware of such a situation.”
Negroponte’s appearance before the committee marked his first public testimony since his April confirmation hearings.
He described Al Qaeda as “a battered but resourceful organization” that remained the preeminent threat to U.S. interests around the world. He said that conventional attacks by Al Qaeda remained the most “probable scenario” but that the terrorist network was interested in acquiring chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to attack the United States.
Negroponte said the outcome of the war in Iraq was likely to have a major impact on the Islamic terrorist threat for years. If jihadists succeed in undermining the fledgling government there, he said, “they could secure an operational base in Iraq and inspire sympathizers elsewhere to move beyond rhetoric to attempt attacks against neighboring Middle Eastern nations.”
Capturing Al Qaeda’s leading operative in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, would rob the insurgency of a potent leader, Negroponte said. But if Zarqawi continues to carry out attacks, it could “enable him to expand his following beyond his organization in Iraq much as [Osama] bin Laden expanded Al Qaeda in the 1990s.”
The intelligence officials cited growing concern about the nuclear activities of Iran.
“Despite its claims to the contrary, we assess that Iran seeks nuclear weapons,” Negroponte said, adding that the fundamentalist government has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.
Negroponte said Iran was also “responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anti-coalition attacks” in Iraq. Tehran, he said, has helped provide material and instruction to Shiite militants on how to build more powerful roadside bombs that account for a large share of U.S. casualties.
Regarding the surprise success of the Hamas party in Palestinian elections last week, Negroponte said the vote “may have been cast more against the Fatah government than for the Hamas program of rejecting Israel.” Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.
North Korea’s claim to have nuclear weapons “is probably true,” Negroponte said.