WASHINGTON — Former CIA Director Michael Hayden angrily struck back Saturday at assertions that the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 surveillance program was more far-reaching than imagined and was largely concealed from congressional overseers.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Hayden maintained that top members of Congress were kept well-informed all along the way, notwithstanding protests from some that they were kept in the dark.
"One of the points I had in every one of the briefings was to make sure they understood the scope of our activity. 'They've got to know this is bigger than a bread box,' I said," said Hayden, who also previously headed the National Security Agency.
Hayden was reacting to a report issued Friday by a team of U.S. inspectors general which called the surveillance program in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks "unprecedented." It also questioned the program's legal rationale and the excessive secrecy that surrounded it.
Hayden, who in 2001 designed and carried out the secret program, said he personally briefed top lawmakers on the entire surveillance operation and said he felt that they supported it.
The details of the wider surveillance program described by the federal investigative report remain classified. The program included the wiretapping of American phone and computer lines, and was intended to detect communications from the al-Qaida terrorist network. That was revealed by the New York Times in 2005 and later confirmed by then-President George W. Bush.
Hayden said that just weeks after Bush approved the activity, senior Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence committees in the House and Senate started getting briefed about four times a year. The number of lawmakers informed was kept small because the program was highly classified. On occasion, top members of the House and Senate leadership were also briefed. The meetings nearly always occurred at the White House, with Vice President Dick Cheney in attendance, Hayden said.
The report released Friday said that most of the information gathered under the Bush surveillance program ultimately did not have any connection to terrorism. It was so secret that few members of Bush's inner circle were "read in" on program. Even John Ashcroft, who was attorney general at the time, got an accurate description of one surveillance activity only two years after he first certified it as legal.
Just what those activities involved remains classified, but the report released Friday pointedly said that any continued use of the information gathered in the secret programs must be "carefully monitored."
Hayden called the program extremely valuable and said that it served as an early warning system to help prevent further al-Qaida attacks.