WASHINGTON — Ignoring opposition from Congress, President Bush nominated Gen. Michael V. Hayden on Monday to be the next CIA director, setting the stage for a confirmation struggle that is certain to focus on Hayden's military background and his role in a controversial domestic eavesdropping operation.
The Bush administration also moved swiftly to reassure beleaguered CIA employees by pledging that the agency would not be dismantled under Hayden, and offering the No. 2 position to a respected former spy who had resigned over clashes with outgoing director Porter J. Goss.
In pushing ahead with the Hayden nomination, the White House is staking the CIA's future on a strait-laced Air Force officer who is often praised for his keen understanding of complex intelligence issues as well as his plain-spoken style.
But Hayden, who for six years was director of the National Security Agency, is also associated with almost every intelligence issue that has become a problem for the administration -- including the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, misjudgments about weapons programs in Iraq, and eavesdropping on U.S. residents without court warrants.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
CIA nominee: A news analysis in Tuesday's Section A about the nomination of Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden to head the CIA said a Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today showed President Bush's approval rating was at an all-time low of 31%. CNN was not associated with the poll.
Nonetheless, the White House apparently is willing to revive the eavesdropping debate to highlight national security issues, which have been a political plus for the administration.
Some lawmakers also have expressed concern about putting a military officer in charge of a civilian agency at a time when the Defense Department is seen as expanding its involvement in spying operations and increasingly encroaching on the CIA's turf, prompting fears that the agency will be "gobbled up" by the Pentagon.
Bush sought to brush back congressional critics, citing Hayden's extensive experience in a series of national security assignments, and declaring him "the right man to lead the CIA at this critical moment in our nation's history."
But even after Monday's major public relations push by the White House, opposition on Capitol Hill continued to mount, including unusually harsh responses from ordinarily loyal Republican leaders.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) declared his opposition to Hayden's appointment, siding with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan.
Hastert "believes a military figure should not be the head of a civilian agency," said Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesman. Bonjean also said that Hastert had been "informed but not consulted" about Hayden's selection.
Some of Hayden's supporters see a difficult struggle ahead, conceding that the political stars are not aligning the way the White House and its nominee might have hoped.
"He's going to have to jump through a lot of hoops, and he may not make it," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee who supports Hayden's nomination.
The response was more muted on the Senate side of the Capitol, where Hayden's confirmation vote will take place.
But there too, key Republicans stopped well short of expressing enthusiasm for a candidate who was confirmed unanimously a year ago for the No. 2 job in the U.S. intelligence community.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: "While I am not opposed to his nomination, senators, including myself, will have important questions which they will want addressed prior to any confirmation vote."
Roberts said that he expected Hayden to be confirmed nevertheless, and that he planned to schedule Intelligence Committee hearings on the nomination before the end of the month.
Among Senate Democrats, misgivings centered mainly on Hayden's role in running the domestic surveillance program, which was authorized by Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and exposed publicly in news reports last year.
Under the ongoing program, the NSA has monitored communications of U.S. residents without court warrants, bypassing requirements of a 1978 law designed to protect Americans against such surveillance.
The White House has defended the operation by saying that it was necessary to prevent follow-up attacks on U.S. soil, and was limited to international calls between U.S. residents and individuals overseas suspected of ties to Al Qaeda.
Members of both parties have questioned the program's legality, and called for new measures that would subject such domestic spying to judicial and congressional scrutiny. Hayden was responsible for running the program, and has also played a leading role in defending it publicly.
"It is not a driftnet over Dearborn or Lackawanna or Freemont," Hayden said in a January speech. "This is hot pursuit of communications entering or leaving America involving someone we believe is associated with Al Qaeda."
Hayden's role defending the operation has troubled some lawmakers.