WASHINGTON—The Bush administration provided detailed information on its domestic wiretapping program to the full membership of the House and Senate intelligence committees Wednesday, part of an effort to stem growing criticism surrounding its nominee to head the CIA.
White House spokesman Tony Snow acknowledged that the decision to brief the full committees, a move the administration had resisted for months, came as part of an effort to ease the confirmation of Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the former National Security Agency chief whose confirmation hearings as CIA director are scheduled to begin Thursday.
Republicans in both the House and the Senate, including Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, had warned the White House that Hayden faced an uphill battle if the intelligence panel, which is responsible for vetting Hayden's nomination, was not fully briefed on the domestic surveillance programs.
"There was a strong sense that everybody needed to be read into the program to do what they needed, in (Roberts') opinion, to do to have a full and appropriate confirmation hearing for Gen. Hayden, and we agreed with him," Snow said.
The White House said the Capitol Hill briefings, held by Army Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who succeeded Hayden as director of the NSA, would cover both the controversial eavesdropping program -- in which the administration has acknowledged listening into a handful of phone calls between the U.S. and overseas -- and the recently disclosed NSA database of domestic phone calls.
After a 45-minute session with Alexander and his committee, Roberts said he believed the session was "very helpful," but did not comment on how the programs' details were received by panel members.
Both Roberts and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M, head of the subcommittee that oversees electronic intelligence-gathering, said they expected Wednesday's briefings to be just the first in a series of oversight hearings looking into domestic surveillance.
"We expect continuing meetings and briefings, sitting down with analysts, understanding the NSA program and the controls within that program to make sure that we are gathering intelligence on our enemies, particularly al-Qaida in this case, and that these very powerful tools are not inappropriately targeting United States citizens," Wilson said.
In a related development, a federal judge in San Francisco on Wednesday rejected a request by AT&T Corp. to bar the public from attending a hearing in a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that has accused the phone giant of violating wiretap laws by turning over both calling information and the contents of e-mails to the NSA without a court order.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker also refused two other requests from the company: that a retired AT&T technician, Mark Klein, be prohibited from disseminating documents related to the case -- some of which have been posted on the Internet -- and that the documents be returned to AT&T. The documents remain under seal in court.
Hayden is expected to face extensive grilling about the NSA programs at his confirmation hearings. He has been a vigorous defender of the eavesdropping program, which both he and the administration argue is exempt from federal laws that require intelligence agencies to get court-approved warrants to listen into domestic phone calls.
Democrats have also raised concerns about Hayden's military background and apparent attempts by the Pentagon to take over more intelligence assets. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a congressional hearing Wednesday that he believed the Pentagon had actually lost control of some of its intelligence authority since the appointment of a new intelligence czar, John Negroponte, who as director of national intelligence oversees all 16 U.S. intelligence programs, eight of which are related to the Defense Department.
"Clearly, once ... the law passes establishing the director of national intelligence and assigning certain responsibilities, we end up technically with somewhat less authority," Rumsfeld said, adding that he rejected accusations that there was friction between the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.
"I have worked very closely with the director of CIA as well as with the director of national intelligence," Rumsfeld said of the criticisms. "It reads like fiction to me. ... I think it's mythology."
Times staff writer Joseph Menn in San Francisco contributed to this report.