Key US senators support Gen. Hayden as CIA chief
WASHINGTON, May 12 (Reuters) US Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, nominated to be CIA director, won public support from two independent-minded Republican senators today despite revelations that he oversaw efforts to track the phone calls of tens of millions of Americans.
''We need a CIA director in place,'' said Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. ''I believe Gen. Hayden has the qualifications, the managerial experience and the leadership that is needed.'' But both Collins and Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who serves on the intelligence panel that will review Hayden's nomination, said he will face some tough questions from senators about the telephone data collection program.
Hayden was on Capitol Hill making the traditional courtesy calls to senators before his scheduled Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.
Collins and Hagel spoke to reporters after separate meetings with Hayden.
Hayden's visits to Senate offices became a more critical chance to shore up his Senate support following revelations that the Bush administration had authorized the collection of phone records of tens of millions of citizens.
The covert activity was coordinated by the National Security Agency, which Hayden headed from 1999 to 2005. It previously had been revealed that Hayden, as NSA director, was a central figure in a warrantless eavesdropping program that critics have called a violation of civil rights.
Following a 40-minute meeting with Hayden, Hagel told reporters, ''I support him.'' But the senator warned that Hayden will face tough questions during his confirmation hearing.
''He's going to have to explain what his role was, to start with'' in the phone data program, Hagel said.
Neither Collins nor Hagel have shied away from challenging the Republican Bush administration on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues and their support for Hayden could resonate in the clubby Senate.
Hayden kept his remarks to reporters to a minimum, repeating that the NSA had conducted its programs legally.
He also said the intelligence agency wanted to ''assure the security and liberty of the American people and we've done that.'' President George W. Bush nominated Hayden on May 8 to replace CIA Director Porter Goss, who was pressured to resign last week. At the time, the choice raised questions about an active-duty military officer heading the civilian spy agency.
Collins said she told Hayden that ''he might want to consider resigning his commission to put to rest the issue.'' She added that she didn't see his active military commission ''in any way as being disqualifying'' for the CIA job.
Following the publication on Thursday by USA Today of a story detailing the massive collection of data on domestic telephone calls, the White House said it was going ''full steam ahead'' with Hayden's nomination.
Besides Hagel and Collins, Hayden also was meeting with Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who serves on the intelligence committee.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, was also meeting with Hayden.
Collins said the Bush administration needed to be ''more forthcoming'' on the scope and nature of intelligence gathering ''so we in Congress can exercise our responsibility for vigorous oversight.'' Hagel said he did not discuss the telephone data collection program with Hayden during their meeting on Friday.
REUTERS CH PM2344