WASHINGTON -- In the first direct confrontation between Congress and the Bush administration over the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, Senate Democrats assailed top intelligence officials yesterday for failing to keep them fully informed about the program and accused them of acting as a public relations arm of the White House.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV angrily accused the White House of obscuring the NSA program with "political smoke" and "selective release" of information. The administration's reluctance to provide details to Congress is "an ongoing, festering sore that is going to continue until it is resolved," the West Virginia Democrat warned.
Questions about the NSA's domestic surveillance program dominated a nearly four-hour hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at which the country's spy chief, John D. Negroponte, and other senior officials delivered an annual report on security threats facing the United States.
In his first Capitol Hill appearance since taking the post of director of national intelligence last April, Negroponte read for an hour from a prepared statement describing threats to national security. Among the intelligence assessments were:
Iran "probably does not yet have" nuclear weapons but might obtain them. Separately, a senior aide to Negroponte estimated that Iran was "a number of years" away from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The continuing terrorist threat from al-Qaida and its sympathizers, including "home grown" terrorists among American citizens, is the primary threat facing the United States.
Terrorists are most likely to use bombs to attack Americans and Western interests, but the intelligence community is also worried about their potential ability to obtain nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
But those statements were overshadowed by the debate over the NSA program and the Bush administration's decision to advise only eight senior members of Congress about the domestic spying operation.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the committee's chairman, said the administration was right to be skeptical of Congress' ability to keep secrets, because members had leaked classified information in the past. Roberts said he "cannot imagine" why someone receiving a call from a person with ties to al-Qaida would feel their civil liberties were being violated if the government were listening in.
"You really don't have any civil liberties if you're dead," he said.
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, accused intelligence officials of withholding details about the program so the Bush administration could argue that the NSA wiretaps are essential to national security without having to prove what they have accomplished.
"Basically, the administration wants to be unchecked, either by a court or by the Congress," Levin said.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the top deputy to Negroponte and the NSA's director until last spring, said he was "not at liberty" to provide senators with information about the number of conversations that the agency has tracked, even if the committee went behind closed doors.
But Rockefeller, the panel's senior Democrat and one of eight members of Congress who have been briefed over the past three years about elements of the program, said the number is sizable.
"It just happens to be the largest [domestic] NSA program in the history of this country," he said. "This is a serious, dramatic program."
Rockefeller said that Hayden's speech before the National Press Club last month and other public statements "give the disturbing impression to some that the intelligence community has become a public relations arm of the White House in recent weeks."
Republicans, for their part, echoed Bush's contention that the revelation of the program's existence had harmed national security.
CIA Director Porter J. Goss said other leaks about classified operations, such as reports about a secret system of CIA prisons, had taken a "very severe" toll on the nation's intelligence capability.
"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," Goss said.
Intelligence officials revealed new details about the way the NSA eavesdropping program operates, with Hayden indicating that there were relatively few limitations on its analysts in deciding whether to monitor communications of people in the United States.
He said the analysts, armed with a list of groups considered to be affiliated with al-Qaida, consider whether "a prudent person would have reason to believe" that one of the people talking might have al-Qaida connections.
Negroponte and other officials would not say publicly whether the existence of other intelligence programs, besides the NSA's domestic spying operation, has been withheld from members of the Intelligence Committee.
Similarly, when Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, asked whether the Pentagon's controversial Total Information Awareness data mining program had been moved to other intelligence agencies, Hayden said he would discuss it in a closed meeting after the public session.
Separately, a congressional aide told The Sun that many elements of the Pentagon program "shifted to NSA" after Congress shut it down in 2003.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the NSA program had provided leads that "have been valuable in identifying would-be terrorists in the United States, individuals who were providing material support to terrorists."
Negroponte called the NSA operation "an effective and important program" that combats "the international terrorist threat in the most agile and effective way possible."
During his first nine months as the nation's spy chief, Negroponte has kept a low profile, and the hearing was his first effort to present himself publicly as the head of all U.S. intelligence agencies.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, questioned whether Negroponte was really making decisions about intelligence programs run out of the Pentagon. She also expressed concern that Negroponte's chief of intelligence-sharing had resigned last week.
Separately, Senate Democrats renewed their call for documents from the Justice Department on government surveillance programs. Feinstein said the Senate should subpoena them, if necessary, unless the Bush administration drops its refusal to provide the information.