Jan. 23, 2006 — -- Michael Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence and former director of the National Security Agency, defended a controversial NSA eavesdropping program this morning, kicking off a weeklong effort by the White House to counter criticism of the highly secretive program.
In a speech at the National Press Club, Hayden said if the program had been in place before the Sept. 11 attacks, it may have detected some of the 9/11 hijackers.
"Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such," said Hayden.
After the attacks, Hayden used his authority as NSA director to increase coverage of terrorism targets and share information with counterterrorism officials across the government. An executive order that gave Hayden this authority was separate from the eavesdropping program, which President Bush approved months after the attacks, allowing the agency to perform warrantless electronic surveillance of al Qaeda subjects in the United States.
The warrantless eavesdropping program was authorized by the president, senior government lawyers at the White House, the Justice Department and three top lawyers at the NSA picked by Hayden.
"That authorization was based on an intelligence community assessment of a serious and continuing threat to the homeland," said Hayden. "The lawfulness of the actual authorization was reviewed by lawyers at the Department of Justice and the White House, and was approved by the attorney general."
When the new program was authorized in early October 2001, Hayden convened a meeting at NSA headquarters to discuss the new provisions with key NSA counterterrorism and al Qaeda experts.
"There are no communications more important to the safety of this country than those affiliated with al Qaeda with one end in the United States," Hayden said."The president's authorization allows us to track this kind of call more comprehensively and more efficiently."
Hayden was appointed principal deputy director of national intelligence in April 2005. He had served as NSA director from 1999 to the time of his appointment.
The program has faced controversy and federal lawsuits from civil liberties groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, because of the warrantless nature of the surveillance. Traditionally, secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants for counterterrorism and intelligence investigations have been approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court located at the Justice Department.
The eavesdropping program, approved in October 2001, bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and allowed the NSA to intercept data collected on Americans without a warrant on the condition that the communications involved suspected al Qaeda or al Qaeda-related individuals.
Defending the program, Hayden said, "This program has given us information that we would not otherwise have been able to get."
The former NSA director tried to dispel misunderstanding about the NSA and the program, saying, "[The program] is not a drift net ... grabbing conversations that we then sort out by these alleged key-word searches or data-mining tools or other devices that so-called experts keep talking about."
Describing the urgency of getting timely counterterrorism intercept data, Hayden said, "This is hot pursuit of communications entering or leaving America involving someone we believe is associated with al Qaeda."
According to U.S. officials with knowledge of the program, after analyzing the movements and communications of the 9/11 hijackers, investigators and intelligence officials found missed opportunities, when the hijackers' phone calls and e-mails could have been intercepted, and possibly tipped off investigators of the coming attacks.
The 9-11 Commission criticized the NSA and its ability to analyze intercepted communications, noting in the its final report, "While the NSA had the technical capability to report on communications with suspected terrorist facilities in the Middle East, the NSA did not seek FISA Court warrants to collect communications between individuals in the United States and foreign countries, because it believed that this was an FBI role. It also did not want to be viewed as targeting persons in the United States and possibly violating laws that governed NSA's collection of foreign intelligence."
In the coming days, the Bush administration will continue its efforts to put out additional information on the controversial program. On Tuesday Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will address the issue in a speech at Georgetown Law School. Later in the week, President Bush is expected to visit NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. This will set the stage for congressional hearings beginning next month.