Yesterday, the nation’s top intelligence officials appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee for an annual hearing on national security threats. On at least three occassions, the officials refused to answer critical questions about the administration’s domestic surveillance programs in an open session. In each case, their non-answers spoke volumes.
The first question involved the existence of other domestic intelligence collection programs that have not been disclosed to the full intelligence committee (a CRS report this month found this practice illegal):
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D-WI): Mr. Ambassador, without getting into what the specific programs might be, can you assure us today that there are not other intelligence collection — and I emphasize collection — programs that you are aware of and that you are keeping from the full intelligence committee?
NEGROPONTE: Um”¦ Senator, I “¦ I don’t know if I can comment on that in an open session.
In the second exchange, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked officials to provide estimates of the number of communications, and the number of individuals affiliated with terrorist organizations, monitored by the NSA’s warrantless domestic spying program.
As Levin noted, both President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have openly discussed these issues: Bush described the program as “one that listens to a few numbers,” and Chertoff hypothesized about “culling through literally thousands of phone numbers.” Yet the officials refused to answer Levin’s questions:
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Can you give us an estimate as to the number of such communications which were tracked by NSA last year? …
HAYDEN: I’d be very uncomfortable doing it in open session, and I don’t actually know that number. …
LEVIN: Secretary Chertoff says if you’re “culling through literally thousands of phone numbers” you wind up with a huge problem managing the amount of paper. Why is it alright for Secretary Chertoff to talk about “thousands of phone numbers,” but you can’t give us or won’t give us in open session an estimate of the number of those communications?
HAYDEN: Senator, as I said, I’d be uncomfortable doing it in open session, and I don’t know the precise numbers.
LEVIN: I’m not saying precise numbers, I asked for an estimate.
HAYDEN: I cannot give you an estimate of the number of communications intercepted.
LEVIN: Is it a few or is it thousands?
HAYDEN: Sir, I’d be very uncomfortable talking about in open session.
LEVIN: Alright. Now, do you have an estimate as to the number of persons who are members of al Qaeda, or agents of al Qaeda, or are members of affiliated organizations to al Qaeda, or their agents — because that’s the test — whose communications have been intercepted, say, in the last year? Do you have an estimate of a number of persons?
HAYDEN: Yes, sir, I do know that number, but I’m unable to give it in this kind of an environment, sir.
LEVIN: Alright. Will you give us to that in closed session?
HAYDEN: Sir, that’s part of the briefing that I’ve given to the chairman and vice chairman on multiple occasions.
LEVIN: Will you give us that number in closed session, the rest of us that are on the intelligence committee?
HAYDEN: Sir, I’m not at liberty to do that.
Finally, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked the officials whether the widely-criticized Total Information Awareness program was still active. Congress voted to shut down the operation in 2003, and terminated the related “Matrix” collection program last year:
WYDEN: Mr. Director, is it correct that when John Poindexter’s program, Operation Total Information Awareness, was closed, that several of Mr. Poindexter’s projects were moved to various intelligence agencies?
NEGROPONTE: I don’t know the answer to that question.
WYDEN: Do any of the other panel members know? The press has reported intelligence officials saying that those programs run by Mr. Poindexter — I and others on this panel led the effort to close it. We want to know if Mr. Poindexter’s programs are going on somewhere else. Can anyone answer that? Mr. Mueller?
MUELLER: I have no knowledge of that, sir.
WYDEN: Any other panel members?
HAYDEN: Senator, I’d like to answer in closed session.
For full transcriptions of the exchanges above, click here.