Democrats and Bush Aides Spar in Senate Over U.S. Spying

By SCOTT SHANE

New York Times

February 3, 2006

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2 Senate Democrats today angrily accused the Bush administration of conducting a public relations campaign to defend the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program while refusing to brief Congressional oversight committees about the secret eavesdropping.

An annual hearing on national security threats, led for the first time by John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, was overtaken by partisan debate about the program. In response to the Democrats' complaints, Republicans and the administration's top intelligence officials said the real problem was leaks about N.S.A. eavesdropping and other classified matters.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, compared the administration's public disclosures of information about the N.S.A. program in the six weeks since it was initially reported to what he described as a similarly misleading use of intelligence prior to the war in Iraq.

"I am deeply troubled by what I see as the administration's continued effort to selectively release intelligence information that supports its policy or political agenda while withholding equally pertinent information that does not do that," Mr. Rockefeller said.

Mr. Negroponte and other senior intelligence officials noted that President Bush and Vice President Cheney had made the decision to limit briefings on the N.S.A. program to just eight members of Congress: leaders of the Senate and House and of the intelligence committees from both parties.

"This was not about domestic surveillance," he said. "It was about dealing with the terrorist threat in the most agile and effective way possible."

While the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a public hearing next week to explore legal issues surrounding the N.S.A. program, the Senate Intelligence Committee has not yet held hearings or a closed briefing for all of the panel's members on the matter. The committee's Republican chairman, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, tried to head off the Democratic attack by announcing that the committee would be briefed on the N.S.A. program in closed session on Feb. 9.

But Mr. Roberts and other Republicans said the real issue was the unauthorized leak of sensitive information on intelligence. Porter J. Goss, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, concurred, asserting that leaks have done "very severe" damage to national security, and declared that the leakers would be found.

"I've called in the F.B.I., the Department of Justice," Mr. Goss said. "It is my aim and it is my hope that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present, being asked to reveal who is leaking this information." Until last year, Mr. Goss also served as director of central intelligence, but was superseded in that post by Mr. Negroponte's appointment.

Mr. Negroponte's careful recitation of the threats facing the nation, including terrorism, Iran and North Korea, included few surprises. But as soon as senators were permitted to question him and his colleagues, an emotional debate quickly ensued over the conduct of the intelligence agencies and the proper degree of public and Congressional knowledge of their activities.

In one pointed exchange, Senator Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, a Democrat, asked Mr. Negroponte whether there were any other intelligence programs that had not been revealed to the full intelligence committees.

The intelligence chief hesitated, then replied, "Senator, I don't know if I can answer that in open session."

A similarly revealing sparring session came when Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, pressed the intelligence officials about whether a controversial Pentagon data-mining program called Total Information Awareness had been effectively transferred to the intelligence agencies after being shut down by Congress.

Mr. Negroponte and the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, both said they did not know. Then came the turn of Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who headed N.S.A. for six years before becoming the principal deputy director of national intelligence last spring.

"Senator," General Hayden said, "I'd like to answer in closed session."