A general in charge of the CIA? Shocking!

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: May 15, 2006 12:01 AM

Some of the honorables in Congress are shocked - shocked! - that George W. Bush would nominate a military man to head the Central Intelligence Agency. To quote Saxby Chambliss, a Republican congressman from Georgia, Gen. Michael Hayden's military background would be a "major problem."

How's that again? Wasn't Stansfield Turner, an admiral, head of the CIA back in the Carter administration? Indeed, at last count, 13 of the 19 directors of the agency had served in the military at some time before their appointment. In the agency's early days, it was almost assumed a military man would head it.

A few of us are old enough to vaguely remember names like Walter Bedell Smith, Hoyt Vandenberg, Roscoe Hillenkoetter, and Sidney Souers, generals or admirals all, not to mention the day the wheel was invented . . . .

This four-star, Michael Hayden, comes out of the Air Force, where he developed an interest in intelligence work, and went on to head the National Security Agency; he hasn't worked at the Pentagon since 1999. It was John McCain, the senator from Arizona, who noted that by now Michael Hayden is more of a spook-in-chief than a military man. But whatever his assignment, he's done a heckuva job at it.

That doesn't mean the usual rock-chunkers in Congress won't do everything they can to derail Gen. Hayden's nomination. His greatest accomplishment may have been to oversee the development of a sophisticated computerized databank that's designed to spot and monitor international calls from al-Qaida suspects overseas to contacts in this country. Naturally he's been bitterly criticized for it, along with his commander-in-chief.

By authorizing such a program, it's said, George W. Bush has been undermining our liberties rather than protecting them against terrorists who care nothing about our laws except how to take advantage of them. Apparently we are supposed to sit back and let them do just that.

It's the familiar old Constitution-as-suicide-pact theory of law, which has been used against every administration serious about holding the country together since Mr. Lincoln's.

Henry Stinson would understand the objections to the general's appointment. He was Herbert Hoover's secretary of state in 1929 when he learned that American cryptographers had deciphered Japan's diplomatic cables. "Gentlemen," he harrumphed, "do not read each other's mail." And he shut down the whole, code-breaking operation. Brilliant.

The very existence of Gen. Hayden's computerized operation was a closely guarded secret till The New York Times told the world about it. I can't think of a greater disservice to the national defense on a newspaper's part since Col. McCormick's old Chicago Tribune, in its perfervid opposition to another war, revealed that American intelligence had broken the Japanese naval code. Looking back, it seems unfair that the Trib, unlike the Times, wasn't awarded a Pulitzer.

In one of the more widespread misnomers of our time, this operation has been dubbed a "domestic spying" program - even though it is designed to track only international calls to and from the United States. It's also been called illegal, unconstitutional and generally un-American by its critics, none of them very persuasive.

But it was Congress itself, by joint resolution, that empowered the president of the United States "to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States" immediately after September 11th. And the Constitution of the United States is quite explicit about who exercises such powers in the federal government: "The executive Power shall be vested in a president of the United States." (It's hard to beat the Founders when it comes to writing a simple declarative sentence.)

Back in 2002, when the memory of September 11th was still fresh, the appellate court that supervises the operation of FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) upheld the president's "inherent constitutional authority to obtain foreign intelligence information." Instead of the president's violating the Constitution by authorizing such wiretaps, the court ruled that to bar him from doing so would "encroach on the president's constitutional power."

This still closely guarded system of tracking calls from terrorists now is said, ominously, to authorize "warrantless searches," which is technically accurate. Just as our troops in Iraq conduct warrantless searches when searching for intelligence about the enemy, and should.

The program Gen. Hayden oversaw is just as important, and useful, in guarding the home front. At least one terrorist plot, a plan to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, was thwarted by intelligence derived from the NSA's program, or that's what The New York Times reported when it blew the whistle on this operation.

Conclusion: Instead of being lambasted for his role in developing this program, Gen. Hayden deserves another medal.