WASHINGTON — Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden vigorously defended the legality of the Bush administration's domestic wiretapping program Thursday and declared that the Central Intelligence Agency "must be transformed" to stay abreast of terrorist and other threats.
In an often-contentious hearing on his nomination to be the next CIA director, Hayden fended off questions from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about his previous job as director of the National Security Agency. He acknowledged playing a larger role than previously understood in the creation of the controversial domestic eavesdropping program, but refused to publicly respond to questions about details of the operation.
The hearing made it clear that Hayden's standing among some members has been diminished by his involvement in the program, which has been a major source of controversy for the Bush administration.
Still, lawmakers and Senate aides emerged from Thursday's session -- the only day Hayden was scheduled to testify -- saying that he was likely to be confirmed by the Senate as early as next week.
In his testimony, the four-star general described ambitious plans for the beleaguered agency he hopes to lead, saying he intends to push the CIA to be more aggressive in mounting clandestine operations and more rigorous in assessments to avoid the mistakes that plagued the prewar estimates on Iraq.
And he made it clear that he believed the CIA had become too bogged down tracking daily developments in Iraq and other global trouble spots.
Instead, he suggested, the CIA should surrender more of that work to the Pentagon and focus more of its energies on anticipating longer-term threats and trends. He said the agency needed to reconcile itself to a diminished role in which it is an important but not isolated member of the U.S. intelligence community.
At one point, Hayden likened the CIA to "a top player on a football team -- critical, but part of an integrated whole. Even the top player needs to focus on the scoreboard, not on their individual achievement."
Hayden, 61, currently serves as the deputy director for national intelligence, the principal deputy to the nation's top spy, John D. Negroponte, who oversees the activities of all 16 U.S. spy agencies. The general played a behind-the-scenes role in ousting CIA Director Porter J. Goss, who resigned two weeks ago amid criticism that he was too turf-conscious and resistant to reforms.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush authorized the NSA to intercept communications between people in the United States and individuals abroad suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda.
In doing so, the NSA bypassed the usual requirement that the government obtain court permission before placing wiretaps on a U.S. resident. The Bush administration kept the program hidden from all but a few lawmakers until the program was exposed in news reports last year.
During one particularly tense exchange at Thursday's hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) challenged Hayden to reconcile details that have emerged on the scope of the surveillance operation with previous public comments downplaying its significance.
"General, I can't tell now if you've simply said one thing and done another, or whether you have just parsed your words like a lawyer to intentionally mislead the public," Wyden said. "What's to say that if you're confirmed to head the CIA, we won't go through exactly this kind of drill with you over there?"
Hayden shot back: "Well, senator, you're going to have to make a judgment on my character."
Hayden acknowledged that the program raised privacy concerns but said repeatedly that he believed it was lawful. "I'm very comfortable with what the agency did, what I did," he said.
He resisted pressure to provide more details, saying he would address matters in a closed session with senators scheduled later in the day. He similarly deflected questions about the CIA's interrogation methods and handling of detainees.
Hayden did provide some new information on the origins of the domestic surveillance program, indicating that he had proposed the idea after being prompted by then-CIA Director George J. Tenet to consider how the NSA might combat terrorism.
Tenet "invited me to come down and talk to the administration about what more could be done," Hayden said. "There then followed a discussion as to why or how we could make that possible."
He did not elaborate, but he disputed reports that Vice President Dick Cheney or other administration officials put pressure on the NSA to be even more aggressive in spying on Americans.
Some lawmakers have questioned whether Hayden's lengthy military career is a liability at a time when the Pentagon is increasingly encroaching on the CIA's traditional turf. Hayden expressed support for the expanding military role in intelligence-gathering, saying that the burden on the CIA had been so taxing that "we welcome additional players on the field."