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Calling on Congress

IN SUDDENLY AGREEING TO INFORM all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees about its warrantless domestic wiretapping activities, the Bush administration is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The administration had resisted such briefings but changed course on the eve of today’s first confirmation hearing before the Senate panel for Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the president’s nominee to head the CIA.

Hayden, now deputy director for national intelligence, is the former director of the National Security Agency. The secretive NSA (an abbreviation, Washington wags say, for “No Such Agency”) has overseen a domestic surveillance program whose existence is known only because of media reports and whose exact contours remain a mystery even to most members of Congress.

Easing Hayden’s confirmation, apparently, is more of an inducement to openness for the administration than are legitimate questions in Congress and among U.S. citizens about the NSA’s surveillance of Americans. Confirmation for Hayden -- whose nomination is problematic for several reasons -- is not necessarily the price Congress and the American people should have to pay for more transparency about the administration’s domestic surveillance program.

Still, the new openness with Congress is welcome. It’s just not enough.

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The administration needs not only to brief Congress fully about what it is doing under this program, it also needs to come clean with the nation about the broad outlines of the program. Only then can all members of Congress -- not just the members of its intelligence committees -- decide whether expanded surveillance is necessary and, if so, whether to authorize it explicitly.

That doesn’t mean disclosing to the public the specific targets of surveillance. But the American people have a right to know if and under what circumstances their phone calls are being monitored and whether, as USA Today has reported, telephone companies have been handing over customer call records for “data mining.”

The administration’s belated agreement to brief all members of the intelligence committees on those other efforts might improve Hayden’s prospects for confirmation. Or it might complicate his confirmation by enabling members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to question him more aggressively -- especially about whether and when the NSA started compiling a database of Americans’ phone calls.

Whatever the implications for the Hayden nomination, the administration’s additional openness with Congress is overdue. Whether the administration will go even further in explaining what it is doing depends on whether members of Congress belatedly decide to assert their institutional prerogatives -- including the right to cut off funding for surveillance operations they believe to be illegal.


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